Gay marriage and the tyranny of the majority—no more?

Posted on March 25, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Yes, it’s the seventh appearance of this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage comes up in high court in the U.S. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as we circle back to California. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to that original California ruling that made banning gay marriage illegal in the state:

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.

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.

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5 Responses to “Gay marriage and the tyranny of the majority—no more?”

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Nobody has the right to vote on what rights other people can enjoy in a free society.

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Hello Jeffrey; well, we do have that right–we don’t live in a free-for-all where I can set churches or homes on fire if I want to, or walk around naked, etc. Basically the “do no harm” rule applies. Of course, defining “harm” is the heart of the matter, and provokes a great deal of debate in a free society. We have to be guided by our founding principles to come to the right conclusions.

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No person or group of people has the right to violate the rights of a minority just to make the people committing the violations feel comfortable. Quite honestly, a free for all society sounds better than a society that makes damn near everything illegal.

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Yes; your first sentence is a nice encapsulation of the principle of tyranny of the majority and why it has no place in a democracy.

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If someone does not want to marry a person of the same biological sex, don’t do it. Another line of argument opponents will use to dismiss legal recognition is this one if it comes to same-sex parenting: Think about the children. With an argument like that, that presumes that children will automatically object to it.

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