The voter referendum held in Maine on November 3, 2009 on whether to revoke the law recently passed there allowing gay Americans to legally marry was marked by claims that the people—rather than the courts or the state legislature—should decide whether gay people should marry. After state judiciaries in Iowa and Vermont in April 2009 legalized marriage for gay people, the usual outraged claims that the judiciary had gone too far filled the air. “We’re not governed by the courts,” sputtered one angry man on the radio.
This basic misunderstanding of the U.S. government leads me to repost this article, originally written in 2008 when California’s courts ruled on marriage for gay people. It applies to Maine, Vermont, Iowa, California, and any other state whose court decides in favor of allowing gay people to marry:
The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.
A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.
The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.
For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.
Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.
In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.
The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.
If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.
This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.
I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen. In the case of Maine, someone claimed that “using the courts as a battering ram to push gay marriage will only turn people against it [gay marriage].” The same could be said—and was said—about desegregation of schools. Popular approval is not the sole measure of a law in a democracy; it simply can’t be.
The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.
So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.