When Love’s Promises Are Fulfilled By the U.S. Supreme Court

Today, in a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme recognized the fundamental nature of love’s promises. In Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, the Court held,  “the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”  Referring to marriage as a “keystone” of the U.S.’s “social order,” Justice Kennedy declared same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Importantly, the case makes clear that forcing gay couples to go across state lines to marry only to deny them the franchise after returning home undermines fundamental principles of liberty.

It’s no surprise that Professor Martha Ertman’s powerful book: Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families on which she copiously and beautifully toiled while rearing her son debuts the summer that equality in marriage becomes a fundamental right for gay men and women. Nor should anyone be surprised if the book, along with the decision itself, becomes a central text at universities and beyond. In what David Corn calls a “love letter to marriage,” from the pen of Justice Kennedy, the Court reasoned:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.“

With that, the Supreme Court overruled the prior judgement of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and set in gear the reversal of centuries’ worth of stigma, shame and inequality, which may not erase overnight, but overtime will ease. Professor Ertman might also suggest that by the decision, the Court resituates contracts too. That is to say, if viewed from the lens of contracts, which serves as the core, theoretical foundation of Love’s Promises, this decision recognizes a fundamental right in contract for gay men and women. Further, the case expands the “contract” franchise to include gay women and men.

Some scholars approach gay marriage primarily from the constitutional liberties encapsulated in the 14th Amendment, upholding equal protection for U.S. citizens regardless of their status, others approach the issue as a matter of privacy. For Professor Ertman, contracts offer an additional lens and much to deliberate about on matters of marriage, parenting, and familial intimacy. Professor Ertman’s writings on contract (The Business of Intimacy,  What’s Wrong With a Parenthood Market?, and Reconstructing Marriage to name a few) precede the book, and presaged its birth.

Here for example, in a passage from Chapter Eight, she explains that “[i]t takes two more trips to the lawyer’s office to hammer out terms that satisfy Karen, Victor, the attorney, and me, from lawyerly technicalities to the emotional terms we call “mush.” From what started out as an addendum to Victor’s and my coparenting agreement has blossomed into a bouquet of wills and powers of attorney, alongside the amended parenting agreement.” She tells readers, “On the way downstairs, clutching documents still warm from the copying machine, Karen squeezes my hand, as if she too feels that signing all those dotted lines brought a family into being every bit as much as vows of forever that we plan to recite…” As she explains, “if you scratch the surface of marriage—straight or gay—you’ll find contracts there, too.”

Professor Ertman urges us to remember time and again that what builds relationships and sustains them are the formal and informal contracting that take place daily in marriage; they establish the foundation for marriage and what comes after. She works diligently in the book to demonstrate love too undergirds contracts. That is to say, she wants readers to reimagine contracts—not as the products of cold, calculated bargaining or business arrangements—though one must acknowledge contracts can be that too—even in marriage.  Often marriage is the product of love, intimacy, and warm innocence.  At other times, it is the product of business arrangements.  It was that too in the U.S. chattel system: contracts that gave legal sufficiency to the buying, selling, bartering, and even destroying of slaves, including children (among them the Black biological offspring of slave owners). In light of that history yet to be fully explored and appreciated in law, it is a formidable task to resituate or reintroduce contract in the space of families and intimacy. However, Professor Ertman rises to that challenge.

Like it or not, contracts pervade marriage and suffuse premarital agreements. Sometimes contracting in this regard attempts to resituate power and status expost marriage, providing the economically weaker spouse economic stability after the breakup. Martha highlights cases from that of Catherine Simeone who received a “raw deal,” to those of celebrities, including Michael Douglas and Beyonce. Who knew that Beyonce would receive $5 million for “each of their children,” if she and Shawn Carter (otherwise known as Jay-Z) divorced? Professor Ertman might argue that despite the businesslike nature of contracts, these legal arrangements and agreements make most matters clearer for everybody. Professor Ertman explains that contracts and even verbal agreements provide information, they can provide context, and they offer choice.

In Ertman’s life, it was a contract that bestowed her wife, Karen, parenthood of their child—not something biological, legislative, or derived from courts. And she offers multiple reasons for readers to consider the salience of contracts in intimacy, including voluntariness, reciprocal promises, and equal status. She offers an additional reason: love’s promises.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. The emotional power of Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell is so strong that I got chills reading Michele Goodwin’s quotes from the opinion – days and secondary sources didn’t dim the power of what Michele calls a “love letter to marriage”(quoting David Corn). There’s a lot to love about finally getting that invitation to the ball from which you’ve been long excluded.

    Likewise, there’s a lot to love about discovering that the pop culture tidbits I collected to illustrate prenups – Beyonce/Jay Z & Michael Douglas/Catherine Zeta Jones — do the work I hoped they would to illustrate legal principles and patterns in a format conducive to beach or treadmill reading. Among the factoids that I included, hoping surprise readers and illuminate the tangled relationship of race, gender and family in American history is the story of Martha Washington owning her half sister Ann Dandridge. I couldn’t hope to fully explore contract law’s invidious incursion into families by, as Michele puts it, “gave legal sufficiency to the buying, selling, bartering, and even destroying of slaves.” But if Love’s Promises helps us “re-imagine” contracts (as Michele says it does), then perhaps some of my arguments in it could support emerging and long-overdue arguments for reparations to the descendants of Ann Dandridge and other enslaved African- Americans.

    Michele’s books Black Markets and Baby Markets provide many extraordinary examples about both the dangers and promise of contractual thinking – some of which show up in Love’s Promises. Her forthcoming volume, Policing the Womb (Cambridge U Press), is bound provide more examples and frameworks that will inform the work of all of us writing about reproduction in particular and inequality in general.