In the various news feeds and pundit commentaries concerning the recent same-sex marriage case, the focus has been on the divide between the majority and dissenting opinions. Some side with the majority, others with the dissenters. Putting such differences aside for the moment, what is noteworthy is that while the Justices in the majority all spoke with one voice, the same was not true for the dissenters.
Though the judgment in Obergefell v. Hodges was 5-4, none of the four separate dissents garnered more than a total of three votes:
- 3 votes: Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent — joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas
- 3 votes: Justice Alito’s dissent — joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas
- 2 votes: Justice Scalia’s dissent — joined by Justice Thomas
- 2 votes: Justice Thomas’ dissent — joined by Justice Scalia
Notably, neither the Chief Justice nor Justice Alito signed onto any of the other dissents. Why?
The Scalia Dissent: Too confrontational?
While the Chief Justice and Justice Alito share many of the constitutional concerns stated by Justice Scalia (e.g., the need for judicial restraint, adherence to precedent, undermining the political process, and deference to the traditional roles of the states), they tend to be uneasy with the kind of in-your-face confrontational tone Justice Scalia employed in his unrestrained dissent.
It is a tried-and-true canon of civility: Attempt to avoid confrontational terms or phrases such as “hubris,” “egotistic,” “mummeries,” and “silly extravagances.” By that creed of civility it is unnecessarily vituperative to equate another Justice’s reasoning with “mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie” or “pop-philosophy” or to refer to that Justice’s opinion as “judicial Putsch” – even if the seriousness of the latter is “not of immense personal importance” to you.
The Thomas Dissent: Too cabined or too natural law focused?
The Chief Justice and Justice Alito also did not sign onto Justice Thomas’ dissent. Why? Though it is more difficult to answer this question, one explanation is a possible disagreement over the contours of due process as Justice Thomas offered it up. That is, his conservative colleagues may have been uncomfortable with Thomas’ reliance on Blackstonian notions of due process – notions perhaps too cabined for their constitutional tastes. Consider in this regard Professor Michael Dorf’s observation over at SCOTUSblog: “To the extent that Justice Thomas would allow any substantive due process, it would be for the liberty of movement only, and failing that, for no more than negative liberties. Marriage, as state recognition, would not be a fundamental right for anyone.”
And then there is Justice Thomas’ invocation of natural law and natural rights. The debate over the use and relevance of natural law has been an ongoing one in conservative circles. On that score, Chief Justice Roberts’ former boss, William Rehnquist, once found himself in the crosshairs of controversy brought on by a defender of natural law. See Harry V. Jaffa, Storm over the Constitution (1999) and his Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution: A Disputed Question (1994) and his article “Judicial Conscience and Natural Rights,” 11 U. Puget Sound L. Rev. 219 (1987).
The Alito Dissent: Reservations about the “further decay” of marriage argument?
While there is much similarity between the Roberts and Alito dissents on matters such as due process, equal protection, and the specter of vilifying people of faith, both nonetheless declined to affirm the other’s dissent. What might explain the Chief Justice’s unwillingness?
Did he have some reservations about the following?: “the tie between marriage and procreation has frayed. Today, for instance, more than 40% of all children in this country are born to unmarried women. This development undoubtedly is both a cause and a result of changes in our society’s understanding of marriage. While, for many, the attributes of marriage in 21st-century America have changed, those States that do not want to recognize same-sex marriage have not yet given up on the traditional understanding. They worry that by officially abandoning the older understanding, they may contribute to marriage’s further decay.”
The Roberts Dissent: Too charitable?
If you believe (as Justice Alito seems to) that same-sex marriages may contribute to the “further decay” of marriage, then you are unlikely to be as generous of spirit as the Chief Justice was when he declared: “If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. . . .” By the same normative token, Justice Alito is not one who would appear to be inclined to say: “Many people will rejoice at [today’s] decision, and I begrudge none their celebration.”
Or what about this Roberts’ statement?: “The opinion describes the ‘transcendent importance’ of marriage and repeatedly insists that petitioners do not seek to ‘demean,’ ‘devalue,’ ‘denigrate,’ or ‘disrespect’ the institution. . . . Nobody disputes those points.” Nobody?
Here, too, speculation is more the measure than certainty.
Crisis of the Dissents Divided?
However close my speculations are to the mark, one thing is certain: there was no unanimity of thought strong enough to convince the four dissenting Justices to lend all of their names to a single opinion. Despite their strong differences with the majority opinion, they, too, had reservations about one another’s views of law and life and how those differences should be expressed.
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On a related point: What are we to make of the fact that none of the four liberal Justices who signed onto Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell found it necessary, or desirable, to write separate concurrences? The same was true with Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Breyer in Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and later with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan in United States v. Windsor (2013).
One would think that these four Justices would push for a more protective conception of equal protection concerning discrimination against gays and lesbians. No? Then again, perhaps these four think the body of law tracing back to at least Romer will suffice. And so far it has.