Marriage Equality: The People Behind the Supreme Court Ruling

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled in favor of marriage equality. As I scrolled through Facebook yesterday, down a news feed swarming with rainbows, equality logos, and quotes from gay rights support groups, I paused at a post that caught my breath: Let’s just call it marriage now.

While I fully support the cause of marriage equality, I have always been a more avid supporter of good, solid marriage in general. I’m happy to “just call it marriage now” because that means we can focus on the aspects of marriage that are closer to my heart: faithfulness, kindness, maturity, and respect. Marriage is a commitment that I take quite seriously, and recognizing all marriages allows everyone to focus on the seriousness of that commitment along with me.

All this being said—congratulations to our nation for supporting marriage equality. Couples can breathe easier just being couples. It isn’t about “gay” couples or “straight” couples anymore. It’s about love. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, I found myself interested in learning about the Justices who ruled in favor of marriage equality. If you don’t know, the ruling was a 5-4 majority decision. The Supreme Court Justices I discuss below all voted in favor of marriage equality*.

Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

Associate Justice Kennedy is a California native that has served the Supreme Court for nearly thirty years. In a paper on Associate Justice Kennedy’s contribution to the rights of gay individuals, Lawrence Levine writes the following:

 “Justice Kennedy, in his near quarter century on the United States Supreme Court, authored the two most important decisions positively affecting the lives of gays and lesbians in the United States: Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas. These two decisions were monumental in bringing gays and lesbians in the United States into the realm of constitutional protection. Rightfully, Justice Kennedy has been lauded for his thoughtful and sensitive gay-friendly jurisprudence.”

Though Levine himself also had reservations about some of Associate Justice Kennedy’s rulings in the past, he still applauds the major contribution Kennedy has made to the lives of gay people across the nation. Associate Justice Kennedy was likely in a place we’ve all found ourselves in from time to time—torn between doing what is right and doing what is popular.

It seems Associate Justice Kennedy has been attempting to break down issues we’ve declared solid lines into blurred lines for quite a while. In a government system that is still heavily attached to black and white, he has been trying to introduce a little color for a long time. What Levine might dub abstruse despite Associate Justice Kennedy’s best efforts may just have been an attempt on Kennedy’s part to initiate an understanding that separate issues often come together to create one primary, well-served law. Consider what H. K. Gerken wrote in the Boston University Law Review earlier this year:

 “…Justice Kennedy, blurs the lines between federalism, liberty, and equality, and he blurs the lines between structure and rights. The genius of the opinion is that it recognizes that rights and structure are like two interlocking gears, moving the grand constitutional project of integration forward. While the doctrine isn’t built to recognizing that reality, that’s the doctrine’s problem…and it’s this part of the opinion that causes academics’ heads to explode. He goes so far as to equate federal interference with state marriage laws (technically, a federalism question) with discrimination against gays and lesbians (technically, an equality question).”

It may seem odd that an Associate Justice would like to blur lines in this way, but as a married man himself, who has served his native state in a variety of roles of the years, maybe he is aware that not everything in life fits squarely into one category or another. Marriage equality isn’t much different that way. Levine does say it best about Associate Justice Kennedy’s journey to this widely applauded decision:

“The struggle for marriage equality will likely give Justice Kennedy the opportunity to define the reach of the liberty interest as it applies to committed, loving couples. And maybe the happy end of the story will indeed be ‘Liberty and Justice for All.’”

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Associate Justice Ginsburg is a Brooklyn-born, long-term supporter of a variety of groups in need of equal rights, namely women. She can now add supporter of gay rights to her résumé, as she is another one of the Supreme Court Justices that ruled in favor of marriage equality yesterday. She is married herself, and as someone who has enjoyed the rights of marriage as well as the protection it provides over her own two kids, she likely thought it was time that gays had those rights and protections as well.

It appears Associate Justice Ginsburg anticipated her role in upholding marriage equality before yesterday’s decision. In an interview with Melissa Hart, which was published in the University of Colorado Law Review, Ginsburg indirectly addressed what she seemed to believe was an upcoming issue:

 “I think everyone here knows that not so long ago Congress passed a law called the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), which says marriage is between a man and a woman. And if you come from a state that recognizes same sex marriage, Massachusetts or New York, for example, no other state is obliged to recognize that marriage…There has been a challenge to the constitutionality of that Act. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held it unconstitutional. A petition for review has been filed in the Supreme Court. We haven’t acted on it yet, but it wouldn’t be extraordinary for the Court to be asked to consider the constitutionality of a law passed by Congress that a lower court had held unconstitutional.”

Associate Justice Ginsburg takes her role in the Supreme Court seriously, of course, but she also takes the opinions of her other Justices seriously as well. In her own view, as she summed up in a past address, to rule in favor or to dissent is a decision that should be made with a heavy heart. It is important for the Supreme Court to present a united front without sacrificing individual values or interpretations of the law, which means it is often necessary to take a backseat on certain issues in order to save opposition for larger issues. In short, Associate Justice Ginsburg is willing to vote against her own opinion of the law on small matters to promote unity in the Supreme Court, but places high value on representing the large matters well. It appears she considered marriage equality a large matter. In Associate Justice Ginsburg’s own words:

“In the years I am privileged to serve on the Court I hope I will be granted similar wisdom in choosing my ground.”

Well, she chose her ground yesterday, and many people believe she chose her ground well.

Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer

For over twenty years, Associate Justice Breyer has served the Supreme Court. Like his fellow Justice, Associate Justice Kennedy, he is a California native. He is married with three children—a marriage that has lasted over forty years. It is safe to say he knows about long-term marriage commitment.

What isn’t always safe to say is where Associate Justice Breyer will stand on certain issues. Whether the majority of people thought they knew where Breyer would stand going into yesterday’s ruling or not has no bearing on his ruling overall. As Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker pointed out after spending some quality time with Associate Justice Breyer in 2010, despite past decisions, Breyer can go both ways:

“Breyer has a disposition that lends itself to compromise. He has a passion, if that’s possible, for splitting the difference. In 2005, the Court heard two cases about governmental displays of the Ten Commandments, one in a public park and the other in a courthouse. Four Justices thought that both were permissible; four thought that both were unlawful; Breyer approved of the park display and rejected the courthouse.”

Breyer doesn’t mind explaining himself, though. He has written numerous books and by his own admission, he prefers to “be in the majority” when it comes to Supreme Court rulings. This makes sense, as every individual wants to be supported in their opinions and values. The pressure to have an opinion of value must be intensified to degrees the common person can’t understand in environments like the Supreme Court. It is clear by his own words that Associate Justice Breyer wishes to fulfill his life in a valuable way, not only holding an opinion of value, but making a direct impact with his opinion while still upholding the law:

“All of us have some role in life. And what matters is how you carry it out. That’s what’s important…But in the law itself there is an objective, and that objective in the law itself is social justice. The objective in the law itself is to remember that the law itself is serving human objectives. It’s designed to help human beings live together in better ways. And that means that you take into account the human element — that is, there’s an element of compassion that must underlie any sensible interpretation of the law.”

One wonders if Toobin discovered that “human element,” that “compassion,” when he was out enjoying nature with Associate Justice Breyer back in 2010. At that time, Breyer had served for sixteen years, and he was already taking stock of his past decisions:

“I’ve been on the Court sixteen years, and I wanted to really look back and see if the way I’d been deciding cases, and how I thought the Court worked and everything, whether it formed a coherent whole, whether it stuck together,” [Breyer] told me. “I wanted to see whether I was jumping from one thing to another, or just following the political winds, or whether there was a vision that’s rather coherent.” Not surprisingly, Breyer concludes that he does have a vision.”

For gay couples across the United States yesterday, Breyer’s vision was their own. Compassion and the human element came together to support the rights of not just “straight” marriage or “gay” marriage, but of marriage.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor

With less than ten years service to the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor may have felt a bit like a wild card in the decision on marriage equality. Born in New York and educated at Princeton University, she eventually found herself among her fellow Justices when President Obama nominated her in 2009. Her connection to President Obama, who has been a supporter of marriage equality himself, may or may not be a factor in the decision she made, but gay couples around the nation are grateful for her contribution to this ruling regardless.

It is likely the decision Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor made had little to do with her connections, but rather follow a personal trend of her own values and beliefs, which contribute to how she handles and interprets the law. Meg Greene’s biography of Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, published in 2012, sheds some light on her as a person both beyond and within the walls of the Supreme Court:

 “This particular Supreme Court justice is more well known for her salsa dancing, karaoke singing, and affinity for the New York Yankees baseball team. She is a life-long resident of the Bronx in New York City…What most people do not realize is that this justice, the third woman and the first Hispanic ever to ascend to the highest bench in the land, also brings more federal judicial experience to the court than any other Supreme Court justice of the last century.”

Now, it is true that Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was in a little hot water early on in her tenure over a statement in which she referred to herself as a “wise Latina,” causing some to immediately question her ability to be a bias-free and fair Supreme Court Justice. However, it seems her ability to be fair and act in accordance with the Constitution was tested yesterday, and she managed to deliver a ruling that seemingly had no connection with her personal background. In the Denver University Law Review, Pat Chew offers the following thoughts:

“My guess is that you did not have those fears. As you considered [the Supreme Court Justices’] backgrounds and their qualifications to be judges, I am guessing that you viewed this information about their backgrounds neutrally. Or perhaps you even associated their backgrounds and their judicial decision making positively. Your reasoning would be that their backgrounds might provide useful insights and particular attentiveness to cases where their knowledge of the health care system, ranching, or military intelligence would be salient. While their perceptions may vary from individuals without these particular experiences, you might plausibly assume that their varied perceptions could enhance rather than corrupt the judicial process; that they would be able to offer insights about the facts and legal principles that others would be unable to offer, drawing from their back­ground for more nuanced, better-informed, and fairer judicial decisions.”

It is true Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor has a far different background than some of her other Justices. However, her background is still far removed from the background of those asking for marriage equality. It seems a round of applause is in order for Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor for making a decision based on law, justice, and doing the right thing by the American people. Gay couples across the nation are certainly thanking her now.

Associate Justice Elena Kagan

At one time counsel to President Clinton himself, this New York native was nominated by President Obama to the Supreme Court less than five years ago. Though her tenure is shorter than any other Supreme Court Justice that ruled in favor of marriage equality yesterday, her ability to do the job justice should not be questioned. Consider Al Franken’s remarks when he was speaking in favor of Associate Justice Elena Kagan being appointed to the Supreme Court:

“I wish to say this: You only have one life. I think that in her 50 years, General Kagan has amassed an incredible record of service and accomplishment. She has been a clerk for a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee; a top adviser to the forty-second president of the United States; the first woman dean of Harvard Law School; and the first woman to be solicitor general in the history of the United States. So is she qualified for the job? Of course. Of course she is. But General Kagan has done more than show she is qualified for the job; she has also shown she understands it. She has shown she understands the obligation of the Supreme Court to the American people and to the Congress that represents them.”

As is the case with many other Justices who have served less time than longer-established ones, it is important to remember that Associate Justice Elena Kagan is a supremely accomplished individual outside the Supreme Court, and it serves to suggest that she is accomplishing great feats and will continue to accomplish great feats as a Supreme Court Justice.

It was not only Al Franken who wished to point out Associate Justice Elena Kagan’s positive attributes and accomplishments when her nomination to the Supreme Court was being considered. Charles Schumer also stood in support of Kagan:

“The record shows that General Kagan’s record is replete with cases, articles, opinions, and discussion that shows and proves she is well within the judicial mainstream. First, in the course of her nomination hearing, she answered more than 700 questions. She answered them with…candor and specificity…General Kagan…has nothing to hide. When she was asked her views on interpreting the Constitution, she gave reasoned, detailed answers, the most reasoned, detailed answers I can remember from a nominee. She gave candid and detailed answers about her views of specific precedent governing the right to privacy, the commerce clause, freedom of the press, the Second Amendment, civil rights, cameras in the courtroom, even about her role as solicitor general.”

From what is being said about her, it seems Associate Justice Elena Kagan does know her stuff. It is a hollow victory to gain marriage equality if the decision is made by people who do not understand the far-reaching consequences and fine details of that decision. This is not the case. Associate Justice Elena Kagan does understand the law. Kagan does understand the fine details. It is likely Kagan has also considered the far-reaching consequences, if the results of marriage equality can even be called “consequences.”

In summary, we can celebrate the decision of the Supreme Court. We can thank these five Justices for their contribution to this decision. Though the decision does not appear to represent solidarity among the Supreme Court, it does appear to represent five Justices who are willing to take a stand on the major issues. It represents five Justices who are willing to do the right thing.

If the people want to consider the results, the far-reaching ripples in the water of equality, consider the new focus we can place on the standards of marriage. With the idea of “gay” marriage and “straight” marriage out of the way, the people can just focus on marriage. Focus on devotion and love now that the silly arguing about what marriage is no longer stands in the way.

Encourage your friends, straight or otherwise, to stand next to their spouse with pride, love, respect, and commitment. Remember the vows we have taken as married couples across the United States. Stand for something greater, now—unconditional, faithful, unfailing love.

*All photographs are courtesy of, and a right-click on the photograph allows you to visit the image’s direct link.

Sources you might want to check out on your own:

BADER GINSBURG, RUTH. “A Conversation With Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” University Of Colorado Law Review 84.4 (2013): 909. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 27 June 2015.

“Biographies of Current Justices of the Supreme Court.” N.p., Web. 27 June 2015.

BREYER, STEPHEN G.. “STEPHEN G. BREYER DELIVERS REMARKS AT JEWISH COUNCIL FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS PLENUM.” Congressional Quarterly Transcriptions 26 Feb. 2007. NewsBank. Web. 27 Jun. 2015.

CHEW, PAT K. “Anticipating The Wise Latina Judge.” Denver University Law Review 91.4 (2014): 853-868. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 June 2015.

Franken, Al. “Should Elena Kagan Be Confirmed By The Senate As An Associate Justice To The U.S. Supreme Court? Pro.” Supreme Court Debates 13.6 (2010): 28-31. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 June 2015.

GERKEN, HEATHER K. “Windsor’s Mad Genius: The Interlocking Gears Of Rights And Structure.” Boston University Law Review 95.2 (2015): 587-613. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 June 2015.

Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. “The Role Of Dissenting Opinions.” Vital Speeches Of The Day 74.4 (2008): 157-160. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 June 2015.

Greene, Meg. Sonia Sotomayor : A Biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2012. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 27 June 2015.

Levine, Lawrence C. “Justice Kennedy’s “Gay Agenda”: Romer, Lawrence, And The Struggle For Marriage Equality.” Mcgeorge Law Review 44.1 (2013): 1-30. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 June 2015.

Schumer, Charles. “Should Elena Kagan Be Confirmed By The Senate As An Associate Justice To The U.S. Supreme Court? Pro.” Supreme Court Debates 13.6 (2010): 28-31. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 June 2015.

Toobin, Jeffrey. “Without A Paddle.” New Yorker 86.29 (2010): 34-41. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 June 2015.

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