Historic Decision on Gay Marriage

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), issued a historic decision concerning gay rights and marriage.  The Opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy.  Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined in Justice Kennedy's Opinion.  The case involved four states that limited marriage as being between a man and woman.  The four States involved were Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.  The Court held that, "[t]he right of same-sex couples to marry that is part of the liberty promised by the Fourteenth Amendment is derived, too, from the Amendment's guarantee of the equal protection of the laws" and "that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry."  Obergefell, 576 U.S. at ___.

Justice Kennedy's Opinion discussed the history of marriage and cited philosophers such as Confucius and Cicero.  Referenced in the opinion was Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), which upheld the constitutionality of a State statute which criminalized certain gay sexual acts - the Bowers decision was overruled in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).  Of prime emphasis in the Obergefell decision was a individual's right to personal autonomy, "[l]ike choices concerning contraception, family relationships, procreation, and childrearing, all of which are protected by the Constitution".  Obergefell, 576 U.S. at ___.  Justice Kennedy recognized that inherent in personal autonomy is the "right to personal choice regarding marriage", "the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals", "the right to marry safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education", and the "Court's cases and the Nation's traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of our social order."  Id.

Some of notable, and memorable, language from the Opinion of the Court is the following:

"Choices about marriage shape an individual's destiny."

"An ability, desire, or promise to procreate is not and has not been a prerequisite for a valid marriage in any State."

 ". . . just as a couple vows to support each other, so does society pledge to support the couple, offering symbolic recognition and material benefits to protect and nourish the union.  Indeed, while the states are in general free to vary the benefits they confer on all married couples, they have throughout our history made marriage the basis for an expanding list of governmental rights, benefits, and responsibilities.  These aspects of marital status include:  taxation; inheritance and property rights; rules of intestate succession; spousal privilege in the law of evidence; hospital access; medical decision making authority; adoption rights, the rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; professional ethics rules; campaign finance restrictions; workers' compensation benefits; health insurance; and child custody, support, and visitation rules."

"Indeed, in interpreting the Equal Protection Clause, the Court has recognized that new insights and societal understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged." 

"The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right."

"An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the   legislature refuses to act."

"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."

Obergefell, 576 U.S. at ___.     

To read the decision in its entirety, go to www.supremecourt.gov.

This overview was authored by Benjamin K. Bergman, Esq., a partner at the law firm of Jackson Bergman, LLP, 477 State Street, Binghamton, New York.  Jackson Bergman, LLP, represents people that are dealing with the following legal matters involving family:  Divorce; Matrimonial; Equitable Distribution; Separation; Child Custody; Child Visitation; Child Support; Spousal Support; Spousal Alimony; Spousal Maintenance; Relocation Petitions; Family Court; Family Offense Petitions; Neglect; and Orders of Protection.  Jackson Bergman, LLP, an experienced, aggressive and talented group of lawyers, has represented people in the following counties in the State of New York: Broome; Chenango; Cortland; Chemung; Delaware; Tioga; and Tompkins.  The law firm of Jackson Bergman, LLP, provides free face-to-face initial consultations.