. . . I disagree with contentions that the Constitution should be interpreted to require state recognition of homosexual marriage on the ground that it is a violation of equal protection of the laws to discriminate against homosexuals by denying them that right. Given civil unions, and contractual substitutes for marriage even short of civil unions, the discrimination involved in denying the right of homosexual marriage seems to me too slight (though I would not call it trivial) to warrant the courts in bucking strong public opinion . . . . — Richard Posner (2005)
At various points [in oral arguments in the same-sex cases], Judge Posner derided arguments from the Wisconsin and Indiana lawyers as “pathetic,” “ridiculous,” and “absurd.” — David Lat (2014)
This is the ninth installment in the “Posner on Posner” series of posts on Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first installment can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, the seventh here, and the eighth one here.
Following the fourth installment in the Posner on Posner series of posts, someone commented on a point Judge Posner made in response to a question posed to him by Professor Kathryn Watts. That comment is set out below. Following it are excerpts from Judge Posner’s 1997 Michigan Law Review essay critiquing Professor William Eskridge’s The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment (1996). Accompanying them are some excerpts from Judge Posner’s opinion Baskin v. Bogan (7th Cir., Sept. 4, 2104, cert. denied and cert denied sub nom., 135 S. Ct. 316) in which he struck down two state laws banning same-sex marriage.
All of this is offered up duly mindful what Judge Posner said in a July of 2014 interview: “I’ve changed my views a lot over the years. I’m much less reactionary than I used to be. I was opposed to homosexual marriage in my book Sex and Reason (1992) [see here re those arguments], which was still the dark ages regarding public opinion of homosexuality. Public opinion changed radically in the years since. My views have changed about a lot of things.”
Of course, those comments from his 2014 interview with Joel Cohen were rendered before the Baskin case came before his court. Since the same-sex marriage cases are not before the Supreme Court for review, I did not ask the Judge to comment on the matter.
That said, I begin with the online commentators remarks and will thereafter proceed to offer some excerpts:
- from Posner’s Sex and Reason (S&R)
- his Michigan Law Review essay (MLR)
- his Baskin opinion (BB), and
- some excerpts from the petition (CP) filed by the Attorney General of Indiana in Baskin since it references Judge Posner’s Michigan Law Review Essay and does so in support of its arguments for reversing the Seventh Circuit’s ruling.
Before offering any excerpts, however, I offer a historical sketch of the legal context in which Judge Posner found himself when he first wrote his book and law review essay and thereafter when he wrote his Baskin opinion.
(Note: Some of the links below will open in Firefox and Chrome but not in Safari.)
Praise for Posner: On Judges Educating the Public
LGBT (12-3-14) “Judge Posner, I am thinking you will probably read comments so I am taking this opportunity to reach out to you and sincerely thank you for your decision on the Wisconsin & Indiana cases on Gay Marriage. Your ruling was a Tour de Force (!) that got quoted & re-quoted all over the gay blogosphere. The lawyers and other Judges will remember other things you did, but the PUBLIC will remember your decision in the Gay Marriage cases. This will be the opinion that will be cited in the History books. And what was REALLY GREAT is how fast you turned it around. It was oral arguments, then BAM! . . .”
“How wrong you are when you say in your interview, ‘it’s unrealistic for judges to try to educate the general public. I don’t think the general public is interested in anything about judicial opinions except who won the case.’ Not in the Gay Marriage cases; the interest is not simply that we won, but WHY we won. Your words have been copied and pasted all over the gay blogosphere. I know that there is one gay website that gets 30 million hits a year, just that one site. Trust me your opinion was read by millions. It wasn’t simply who won, but WHY the gays won. It was validation to them, they read it and felt validated. You told them they were Equal, and that raised a lot of emotions. Tears were shed, a lot of them. People were commenting how they were reading your opinion and crying, it was very emotional for many, many people. Your opinion will most certainly go down in the history books on the history of the Gay Rights Movement. And I thank you deeply for it.”
The Historical Backdrop
Turn the clock back to 1992, the time when then Judge Posner published Sex and Reason. That was before the Hawaii Supreme Court’s seminal ruling in Baehr v. Lewin (1993) in which it ruled that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated the equality of rights provision of the state constitution unless the state could demonstrate a compelling interest for such discrimination. And the year before Posner published his Michigan Law Review essay (when Eskridge taught at Georgetown), President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. Recall, that law permitted the states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages and remained on the books until Section 3 of the Act was declared unconstitutional by a 5-4 margin in United States v. Windsor. In 1999 Vermont Supreme Court took the lead in ordering the state legislature to establish laws permitting same-sex marriages (Baker v. Vermont was the case). In 2000 the Vermont legislature enacted just such a law, making Vermont the first state in the Union to recognize same-sex marriages.
Different Domains: Scholarly Opinions vs Judicial Opinions
If pursued with characteristic Posnerian relentlessness, [several of his] premises [in Sex and Reason] could yield radically pro-gay policies. But Posner does not press his analysis and, instead, neglects his stated first principles. His treatment of gaylegal issues tends to collapse into well-meaning ad hoc-ness.
[R]epealing sodomy laws and outlawing overt discrimination against bisexuals, gay men, and lesbians are easy cases for a rationalist, libertarian analysis. But a tough-minded cost-benefit analysis [such as the one Posner employs] would not stop with the easiest cases. Recognizing the same constitutional right to privacy for same-sex intimacy as is accorded different-sex intimacy, ending the military’s exclusion of bisexuals, gay men, and lesbians, and requiring states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples are conclusions that are scarcely less compelling under Posner’s first principles. Yet Posner himself rejects or avoids these latter conclusions. And he does not even discuss other issues of profound importance to lesbian, gay, and bisexual communities. – William Eskridge (1992)
One does not have to defend Richard Posner’s early views on same-sex marriage to concede the obvious: it was a different legal world. Still, a new legal order was emerging as evidenced by two noteworthy pieces by Professor William Eskridge: First, his 1992 Yale Law Journal review essay of Sex and Reason, and second, his 1993 Virginia Law Review article, “A History of Same-Sex Marriage.” And then there was Professor Robin West’s critical 1993 Georgetown Law Journal review essay on Sex and Reason.
Richard Posner, an intermediate appellate judge, was not then a part of that emerging order. As a jurist he yielded, so he asserted, to the dictates of judicial modesty. While such dictates understandably restricted the direction of his judicial opinions, they need not have dictated the direction of his scholarly opinions in which he often demonstrated a unique cerebral bravado and a willingness to be a maverick in forging creative arguments. Moreover, in his capacity as a public intellectual and legal scholar, Posner was quite outspoken in refuting the critics of his work. See, e.g., his “The Radical Feminist Critique of Sex and Reason” (1993) article. In all of this, it is important to note that Posner nonetheless: (1) favored decriminalizing homosexual sex; (2) endorsed contracts of cohabitation for same-sex couples; and (3) was fine with legislative enactments legalizing same-sex marriage.
Thus, prior to the oral arguments in Baskin v. Bogan and the opinion in that case, what Posner had written in Sex and Reason and in his Michigan Law Review essay gave a meaningful degree of legal legitimacy to the campaign to oppose same-sex marriage. As late as 2004, Posner’s arguments were reproduced in a collection of essays (edited by Andrew Sullivan and first published in 1997) on same sex-marriage. And then there is his 2005 statement quoted at the outset of this post. It took nearly 17 years after the Michigan Law Review essay was published before Judge Posner expressed any significantly different views, first in a 2014 interview and then in a 2014 judicial opinion. Why so long?
A pragmatic reformer is concerned with what works and therefore cannot ignore public opinion or political realities just because the things he wants to change are not rooted in nature but instead are “mere” constructs. — Richard Posner (1995)
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