On Friday, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down rulings that would have legalized same-sex marriage in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. This, especially given the fact that it is the first serious defeat the movement has seen in several years, understandably upsets proponents of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court’s struck down DOMA, California’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2013 and a series of rulings from the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th Circuit Courts that similarly legalized same-sex marriage in states under those circuits’ jurisdiction. However, the 6th Circuit’s striking down of same-sex marriage provisions may not, ultimately, be a bad thing. In fact, while it may feel like a major step back, it could very well be two or three steps forward.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the United States’ court system, here is a little background: The highest court is the Supreme Court, with 13 courts of appeal (also known as circuit courts), directly underneath it. The circuit courts each preside over the states that are located in the different geographical sections of the United States. The Supreme Court is the only entity that has the power to override the courts of appeal, as they have no power to override each other and it rarely does so. The Supreme Court reviews less than 1% of the cases presented to it, meaning that the ruling a circuit court gives is generally the last word. This can lead to situations where there are major differences in law, depending on which part of the country a person lives in. This is the exact situation the nation is faced with today: People who live in states under the jurisdiction of the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th Circuit Courts are allowed to marry members of the same sex, while people who live in states under the jurisdiction of the 6th Circuit are not.
It is precisely this imbalance that will, ultimately, force the Supreme Court to make a definitive ruling on the subject. While the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions dealing with the subject of same-sex rights over the course of the last twenty years have been in favor of them, the Supreme Court has never formally legalized same-sex marriage, nationwide. However, as noted above, an overwhelming number of lower court cases, especially in the last five years, have been in support of it. The fact that the 6th Circuit ruled against same-sex marriage is actually fairly shocking, as it is the first circuit court in recent history to do so. In fact, some analysts believed that the Supreme Court would have simply allowed the circuit courts to, one by one, rule in favor of same-sex marriage, thereby allowing the Supreme Court to abstain from making a decision on the subject, at all, and avoiding angering half the country, especially in a time where public opinion of the Supreme Court is extremely low. However, if this was the Supreme Court’s plan, the 6th Circuit just ruined it and, in doing so, may have just forced the Supreme Court to make a decision. After all, same-sex marriage is the definitive social issue of the day and to leave such a major issue inconsistent, across the country, is almost unconscionable.
To clarify, a sweeping, nationwide ruling is the best-case scenario for proponents of same-sex marriage. While slowly legalizing it on a state-by-state basis has been successful, so far, having a definitive ruling for the entire country is the only way to ensure the issue is put to bed. It’s especially the best-case scenario due to the fact that the Supreme Court will almost certainly rule in favor of same-sex marriage. The current makeup of the Court consists of four clear-cut conservatives who will likely vote against it (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito) and four clear-cut liberals who will vote in favor of it (Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer and Ginsburg). That leaves Anthony Kennedy, the only “swing vote” on the Supreme Court, right now, who has written many of the recent decisions supporting same-sex rights, meaning a vote on same-sex marriage will almost certainly be in favor of it.
Thus, even though the 6th Circuit Court’s ruling may feel like a defeat, it may in fact be a very important step in legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States, once and for all. The Supreme Court, if faced with the decision, will almost certainly rule in favor of it and the actions of the 6th Circuit may have now forced the Supreme Court to do so. So, proponents of same-sex marriage do not be too discouraged, as this most recent ruling is really two steps forward merely disguised as a step back.