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ELENA KAGAN uttered neither the word “gay” nor “marriage” in her opening statement at the Senate confirmation hearings on her nomination to the Supreme Court, but she addressed the issue nonetheless. No, she didn’t say how she will vote when gay marriage comes before the court, as it may soon. What she did say was this:
“The Supreme Court, of course, has the responsibility of ensuring that our government never oversteps its proper bounds or violates the rights of individuals. But the court must also recognize the limits on itself and respect the choices made by the American people.”
Ms. Kagan may not have had gay marriage in mind when she made that statement, but it could not be more relevant. She seems to be saying that protecting minority rights is the Supreme Court’s job description, but also that a civil rights claim doesn’t automatically trump majority preferences. This is something absolutists on both sides of the gay marriage debate don’t like to hear, but it has the virtue of being right.
While the Senate considers Ms. Kagan’s nomination, Judge Vaughn Walker of the United States District Court in San Francisco is deciding how to rule in a major lawsuit challenging Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that revoked and banned same-sex marriage in California (while leaving the state’s marriage-like domestic partner program intact). Judge Walker may declare that the United States Constitution gives gay couples the right to marry — a decision sure to start a political firestorm (possibly just in time to give the Democrats an additional headache in this year’s midterm elections). Whatever he decides is likely to be appealed, presumably up to the court that Ms. Kagan seems likely to join.
This case is not primarily about the merits of gay marriage. It is primarily about who gets to decide. The plaintiffs say marriage is a civil right, and when a civil right is assailed, the Supreme Court has no choice but to take command. If the Supreme Court doesn’t protect minority rights, it abdicates its job.
Proposition 8’s defenders retort that gay marriage is not a civil right, because it is not marriage, or not marriage as defined by most Californians. If the court does not defer to the voters’ wishes, it oversteps its bounds.