One of the defining moments of the entire LGBT movement in the United States was when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 via the landmark civil rights case Obergefell v. Hodges that the United States Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.
The ruling effectively makes same-sex marriage legal in all states and jurisdictions across the U.S. Furthermore, it has also provided same-sex couples and members of the LGBT communities with a key precedent to fight discrimination against same-sex couples.
What exactly is Obergefell v. Hodges? How did the case end up in the highest court of the U.S.? How did SCOTUS judges vote and what were the details of the outcome? What are the specific decisions or rulings contained within the case?
Background: Six Cases in Federal District Courts that Preluded Obergefell v. Hodges
From January 2012 to February 2014, several groups of plaintiffs in the states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee filed separate six federal district court cases or lawsuits that originally represented 16 same-sex couples, seven of their children, a widower, an adoption agency, and a funeral director. Take note of the following:
1. DeBoer v. Snyder Case in Michigan: Judge Bernard A. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled on 21 March 2014 that the State of Michigan cannot use its domestic relations authority to legislate families out of existence, thus ruling further that its ban on same-sex marriage cannot stand. This case involved a female sex-sex couple who filed a lawsuit that challenged a Michigan law that limits adoption to single individuals and married heterosexual couples.
2. Obergefell v. Wymyslo Case in Ohio: This case challenged the State of Ohio for preventing its Registrar from listing the surviving spouse of a same-sex couple married out-of-state in the death certificate of the deceased spouse. District Judge Timothy S. Black U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled on 23 December 2013 that the refusal of Ohio to recognize same-sex marriages from other states was discriminatory and ordered the state to recognize these marriages in death certificates.
3. Henry v. Himes Case in Ohio: District Judge Black also ruled on 14 April 2014 that Ohio must recognize same-sex marriages from other states or jurisdictions, thus reiterating his previous decision in Obergefell v. Wymyslo. This case involved four couples, a child, and an adoption agency who filed a lawsuit to demand the state list both names of same-sex parents on the birth certificate of the involved children.
4. Bourke v. Beshear Case in Kentucky: Two lawsuits or cases were filed in Kentucky to challenge its ban on same-sex marriage and argue for the recognition of same-sex marriages made in other jurisdictions. District Judge John G. Heyburn II of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky ruled on 12 February 2014 that the denial of Kentucky to recognize valid same-sex marriages violated the guarantee of equal protection under the United States Constitution.
5. Love v. Beshear Case in Kentucky: District Judge Heyburn ruled on 1 July 2014 and reaffirmed his earlier decision that the laws in Kentucky banning same-sex marriage were void and unenforceable because they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case involved two same-sex male couples married out-of-state who were not granted marriage licenses in Kentucky because the state banned same-sex marriage in its jurisdiction.
6. Tanco v. Haslam Case in Tennessee: Four same-sex couples who were married out-of-state filed a lawsuit United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee to have the State of Tennessee recognize their out-of-state marriages. District Judge Aleta Arthur Trauger granted a preliminary injunction motion on 14 March 2014 that required the state to recognize the marriages of the three plaintiff couples.
Appeal: Reversal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Circuit Split
The six decisions of the four federal district courts were appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Take note of the following appeals:
• The Director of Health of Ohio appealed Obergefell v. Wymyslo on 16 January 2014 and later Henry v. Himes on May 9 of the same year.
• The governor of Tennessee appealed Tanco v. Haslam on 18 March 2014 while the governor of Michigan appealed DeBoer v. Snyder on March 21.
• The governor of Kentucky appealed Bourke v. Beshear on 18 March 2014 and Love v. Beshear on July 8 of the same year.
• Note that the Sixth Circuit decided to consolidate Obergefell v. Himes and Henry v. Himes on May 20 for the purpose of briefing and oral arguments. Obergefell v. Wymyslo was restyled as Obergefell v. Himes following the appointment of Lance Himes as the interim Health Director of Ohio by the State of Tennessee.
• Bourke v. Beshear and Love v. Beshear were also consolidated by the Sixth Circuit on July 16 upon prior motion by the parties. Tanco v. Haslam and DeBoer v. Snyder remained as two separate cases before the appellate court.
The Sixth Circuit fundamentally tackled four cases from the original six district court decisions. The three-judge panel composed of Judges Jeffrey Sutton, Deborah L. Cook, and Martha Craig Daughtrey began hearing oral arguments in all four cases on August 6.
It is important to note that the Obergefell case was restyled once again as Obergefell v. Hodges following the removal of Himes and the subsequent appointment of Richard Hodges as the Health Director by Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Nevertheless, on 6 November 2014, in a decision styled as DeBoer v. Snyder, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-1 that the ban on same-sex marriage in Ohio did not violate the U.S. Constitution. The court argued that it was bound to the 1972 Baker v. Nelson decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that dismissed a marriage claim by a same-sex couple.
Judge Sutton penned the majority decision. He wrote that not one of the theories presented by the plaintiffs “makes the case for constitutionalizing the definition of marriage and for removing the issue from the place it has been since the founding: in the hands of state voters.”
In her dissenting opinion, Judge Daughtrey wrote: “Because the correct result is so obvious, one is tempted to speculate that the majority has purposefully taken the contrary position to create the circuit split regarding the legality of same-sex marriage that could prompt a grant of certiorari by the Supreme Court and an end to the uncertainty of status and the interstate chaos that the current discrepancy in state laws threatens.”
The decision fundamentally caused a circuit split. This situation occurs when two or more different circuit courts of appeals provide rulings on the same legal issue. To be specific, prior to the DeBoer v. Snyder decision of the Sixth Circuit, four other circuits ruled that same-sex marriage bans violated the U.S. Constitution. Take note of the following:
• Tenth Circuit: The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit struck down the same-sex marriage ban in Utah on 25 June 2014. Furthermore, on 18 July of the same year, the same court invalidated the same ban in Oklahoma.
• Fourth Circuit: On 28 July 2014, the Fourth Circuit upheld a federal district court ruling in Bostic v. Schaefer that struck down same-sex marriage van in Virginia.
• Seventh Circuit: The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously upheld on 4 September 2014 federal district court rulings that invalidated the same-sex marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin.
• Ninth Circuit: On 7 October 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada.
The decisions made by the four appellate court circuits also came after the developing judicial trends following the landmark United States v. Windsor ruling on 26 June 2013 in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act or DOGMA violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Note that Section 3 of DOGMA limited the definition of marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman.
Nevertheless, because the ruling of the Sixth Circuit was different from the earlier rulings argued and made by the Tenth, Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth circuits, thus causing a circuit split, it helped trigger a Supreme Court review.
Review: Tackling the Obergefell v. Hodges Case in the Supreme Court of the United States
The plaintiffs in DeBoer v. Snyder, Obergefell v. Hodges, and Tanco v. Haslam filed petitions for writs of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court on 14 November 2014. Plaintiffs in Bourke v. Beshear filed the same petition on November 18.
Certiorari is a court process that aims to seek a judicial review of a ruling or decision made by a government agency or a lower court. Hence, in the aforementioned four cases, the plaintiffs went to the Supreme Court to review the decision made by the Sixth Court and in accordance with the circuit split due to the differing decisions made by other appellate circuit courts. The plaintiffs were fundamentally appealing their cases.
Each of the four cases had specific petitions and arguments that were put forward before the Supreme Court Take note of the following:
1. DeBoer v. Snyder: This case centered on the question of whether denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
2. Tanco v. Haslam: In this case, the petition revolved around three questions: (1) whether denying same-sex couples the right to marry, including recognition of out-of-state marriages, violated the Due Process or Equal Protection Clauses; (2) whether refusing to recognize their out-of-state marriages violated the right of same-sex couples to interstate travel; and (3) whether the 1972 Baker v. Nelson case that summarily dismissed a claim made by a same-sex couple remained a binding precedent.
3. Bourke v. Beshear: This case asked the Supreme Court whether a state violates the Due Process or Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment by prohibiting same-sex couples to marry, and whether it does so by refusing to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages.
4. Obergefell v. Hodges: In this case, the petition asked the Court to consider whether the refusal of Ohio to recognize same-sex marriages violated the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as whether the refusal of the state to recognize the adoption judgment of another state violated the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court consolidated the four cases on 16 January 2015 and it was stylized as Obergefell v. Hodges, thus agreeing to review their merits and the relevant decisions. It ordered briefing and oral argument based on two important questions:
Whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same-sex
Whether Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to recognize same-sex marriage between when it was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state.
On 28 April 2015, the Court began hearing the oral arguments. The key people in the case were:
• Representatives of the Plaintiffs: Civil rights lawyer Mary Bonauto and lawyer Douglas Hallward-Driemeier represented the plaintiffs. U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. represented the United States in favor of the plaintiffs.
• Representatives of the States: Former Michigan Solicitor General John J. Bursch and associate solicitor general from Tennessee Joseph R. Whalen represented the states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
• Supreme Court Justices: Chief Justice John Roberts, and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader, Ginsburg Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
There were 148 amici curiae briefs submitted for the Obergefell v. Hodges case. This is the most number of amici curiae briefs that a U.S. Supreme Court case has received. Furthermore, it included a collective amicus brief penned by Morgan Lewis of Susan Baker Manning that represented 379 business entities including Apple and Facebook that argued the business case for legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court arrived at a 5-4 decision on 26 June 2015 stating that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires all states to grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states or jurisdictions. This decision effectively overruled its prior decision in Baker v. Nelson it made in 1972.
The majority of the opinions of the justices in Obergefell v. Hodges are consistent with the opinions made in United States v. Windsor that rejected the definition of marriage contained in the Defense of Marriage Act. Note that Justice Kennedy penned the majority of opinions in both the Obergefell and Windsor cases.
In the majority opinion penned by Justice Kennedy, and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, it held that same-sex marriage bans on states violated the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court declared, “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”
In citing the 1965 landmark case styled Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Court ruled that the Constitution protects the right of married couples to buy and use contraceptives without government restriction, the Court added that the fundamental rights found in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs,” but the “identification and protection” of these fundamental rights “has not been reduced to any formula.”
The Supreme Court also referenced several cases such as Loving v. Virginia in 1967, Zablocki v. Redhail in 1978, and Turner v. Safley in 1987 to argue further that the extension of the Due Process Clause concerning certain personal choices central to the dignity and autonomy of an individual includes a fundamental right to marry.
Furthermore, the Court cited United States v. Windsor to support its four distinct reasons why the fundamental right to marry applies to same-sex couples. These are:
1. The right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.
2. The right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.
3. The fundamental right to marry “safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education;” as same-sex couples have children and families, they are deserving of this safeguard—though the right to marry in the United States has never been conditioned on procreation.
4. The right to marry “is a keystone of our social order,” and there is no difference between a same-sex couple and an opposite-sex couple with respect to this principle; consequently, preventing same-sex couples from marrying puts them at odds with society, denies them countless benefits of marriage, and introduces instability into their relationships for no justifiable reason.
In the closing statement, Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Four justices dissented Chief Justice Roberts wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas. He stated that the core component of marriage, which is being between a man and a woman, remains unchanged because there is no prior decision telling otherwise, thus arguing further that the bans on same-sex marriage did not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
He argued further that same-sex marriage bans did not violate the Equal Protection Clause because they were rationally related to a governmental interest, which is to preserve the traditional definition of marriage. Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito also wrote separate dissenting opinions that attacked the majority opinion, interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment, and warned about the impacts of legalizing same-sex marriage.