Jay Reding.com

Tyranny Of The Minority

Law professor Paul Campos takes a critical look at the Iowa Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding gay marriage. (The Court’s opinion is available here.) Campos finds that the legal reasoning behind the decision was lacking:

Stripped of its verbiage, the court’s opinion comes down to the following claims: First, it’s a bad thing for the state to treat people differently on the basis of sexual orientation, unless the state has a good enough reason. Second, the reasons the state gave for treating same sex-couples differently from opposite-sex couples in regard to marriage weren’t good enough.

That’s it. These conclusions might raise various questions in the mind of someone who hasn’t enjoyed the benefits of a legal education. Such as, what was the court’s basis for these claims? Is there anything specifically “legal” about these conclusions? And how did the judges figure this stuff out, especially given that it took more than a century before anyone noticed Iowa’s constitution contained this requirement?

The problem with the Iowa decision is that there isn’t a strong legal rationale for this decision. The Iowa Constitution cannot require the recognition of gay marriage because gay marriage was not acceptable at the time that the Iowa Constitution was written. In essence, the judges are reading their own personal feelings into the law. While the Iowa Constitution is more broadly worded than the federal Constitution, there is still no plausible argument that it was designed to allow for same-sex marriages. What the Iowa Supreme Court has done amounts to going back and changing the words of the Iowa Constitution to mean something that it never was intended to.

Even those who want gay marriage should be troubled by this. There are seven members of the Iowa Supreme Court. There are nearly 3 million Iowans. In a democratic state, 7 people should not be presumed to have the power to set sweeping social policy for the other 2,999,997 people.

Yet that is what happened. The Iowan people did not vote to have gay marriages recognized in their state. In fact, a clear majority of Iowans oppose gay marriage. Yet the voice of the people have been overruled by just 7 people. That is troubling, not only from a standpoint of separation of powers, but because it ultimately hurts the cause of gay marriage. The likely outcome of all of this will be another Prop 8, and even if the Iowa Constitution’s amendment process means that the vote won’t take place until 2012, having this decision essentially forced upon the people of Iowa will not make gay marriage more popular.

This is a clear case of judicial activism. Judges should follow the law, and avoid legislating from the bench. The legal case for gay marriage presented in this opinion is woefully thin—rather the judges decided to enforce a set of social norms on Iowans by their will rather than the legislative process. Even those who support gay marriage should be troubled by that. This is an example of the tyranny of the minority, where the few use judicial overreach to enforce their views in a way they otherwise could not. No matter what the outcome, that kind of circumvention of the democratic process is wrong. The very foundation of our government is based on fundamental values like separation of powers and the consent of the governed. The Iowa Supreme Court has made a sweeping change to Iowa’s social policies and laws without the consent of the people. If such a thing were to stand, it would mean that states are governed not by voters, but by the few.

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