Yes, I will continue to re-post this article each time the question of gay marriage comes up in the courts! The decision this week legalizing marriage for gay Americans in California will likely spawn the same arguments decisions in Iowa, Vermont, and Massachusetts did, so here is the basic Truth v. Myth post on the role of the judiciary in the United States once more. Ironically, it was a California decision back in 2009 that led to the original post. Once again, the state has had to ask its court to rule on this question, and once again it has found the ban unconstitutional:
State Supreme Court decisions deeming the bans on gay marriage unconstitutional continue to spawn the usual outraged claims that the judiciary has gone too far. “We’re not governed by the courts,” is the common complaint, as sputtered by one angry man on the radio.
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.
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.