The Volokh Conspiracy

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Sixth Circuit on the 'rational basis' for opposite-sex-only marriage laws


I support same-sex marriage as a policy matter, and I think there are plausible arguments for concluding that modern Equal Protection Clause doctrine presumptively bars sexual orientation classifications and thus bars opposite-sex-only marriage laws. But I do think that the argument that such laws flunk the "rational basis" test—which is deliberately very deferential to legislative judgment—isn't terribly persuasive. Today's Sixth Circuit majority in DeBoer v. Snyder (6th Cir. Nov. 6, 2014) defends this point well, I think:

A first requirement of any law, whether under the Due Process or Equal Protection Clause, is that it rationally advance a legitimate government policy. Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. 93, 97 (1979). Two words ("judicial restraint," FCC v. Beach Commc'ns, Inc., 508 U.S. 307, 314 (1993)) and one principle (trust in the people that "even improvident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic process," Vance, 440 U.S. at 97) tell us all we need to know about the light touch judges should use in reviewing laws under this standard. So long as judges can conceive of some "plausible" reason for the law—any plausible reason, even one that did not motivate the legislators who enacted it—the law must stand, no matter how unfair, unjust, or unwise the judges may consider it as citizens. Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312, 330 (1993); Nordlinger v. Hahn, 505 U.S. 1, 11, 17-18 (1992).

A dose of humility makes us hesitant to condemn as unconstitutionally irrational a view of marriage shared not long ago by every society in the world, shared by most, if not all, of our ancestors, and shared still today by a significant number of the States. Hesitant, yes; but still a rational basis, some rational basis, must exist for the definition. What is it?

Two at a minimum suffice to meet this low bar. One starts from the premise that governments got into the business of defining marriage, and remain in the business of defining marriage, not to regulate love but to regulate sex, most especially the intended and unintended effects of male-female intercourse. Imagine a society without marriage. It does not take long to envision problems that might result from an absence of rules about how to handle the natural effects of male-female intercourse: children.

May men and women follow their procreative urges wherever they take them? Who is responsible for the children that result? How many mates may an individual have? How does one decide which set of mates is responsible for which set of children? That we rarely think about these questions nowadays shows only how far we have come and how relatively stable our society is, not that States have no explanation for creating such rules in the first place.

Once one accepts a need to establish such ground rules, and most especially a need to create stable family units for the planned and unplanned creation of children, one can well appreciate why the citizenry would think that a reasonable first concern of any society is the need to regulate male-female relationships and the unique procreative possibilities of them. One way to pursue this objective is to encourage couples to enter lasting relationships through subsidies and other benefits and to discourage them from ending such relationships through these and other means.

People may not need the government's encouragement to have sex. And they may not need the government's encouragement to propagate the species. But they may well need the government's encouragement to create and maintain stable relationships within which children may flourish. It is not society's laws or for that matter any one religion's laws, but nature's laws (that men and women complement each other biologically), that created the policy imperative. And governments typically are not second-guessed under the Constitution for prioritizing how they tackle such issues. Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 486-87 (1970).

No doubt, that is not the only way people view marriage today. Over time, marriage has come to serve another value—to solemnize relationships characterized by love, affection, and commitment. Gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of sharing such relationships. And gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of raising children and providing stable families for them. The quality of such relationships, and the capacity to raise children within them, turns not on sexual orientation but on individual choices and individual commitment. All of this supports the policy argument made by many that marriage laws should be extended to gay couples, just as nineteen States have done through their own sovereign powers. Yet it does not show that the States, circa 2014, suddenly must look at this policy issue in just one way on pain of violating the Constitution.

The signature feature of rational basis review is that governments will not be placed in the dock for doing too much or for doing too little in addressing a policy question. In a modern sense, crystallized at some point in the last ten years, many people now critique state marriage laws for doing too little—for being underinclusive by failing to extend the definition of marriage to gay couples. Fair enough. But rational basis review does not permit courts to invalidate laws every time a new and allegedly better way of addressing a policy emerges, even a better way supported by evidence and, in the Michigan case, by judicial factfinding.

If legislative choices may rest on "rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data," Beach Commc'ns, 508 U.S. at 315, it is hard to see the point of premising a ruling of unconstitutionality on factual findings made by one unelected federal judge that favor a different policy. Rational basis review does not empower federal courts to "subject" legislative line-drawing to "courtroom" factfinding designed to show that legislatures have done too much or too little. Id.

What we are left with is this: By creating a status (marriage) and by subsidizing it (e.g., with tax-filing privileges and deductions), the States created an incentive for two people who procreate together to stay together for purposes of rearing offspring. That does not convict the States of irrationality, only of awareness of the biological reality that couples of the same sex do not have children in the same way as couples of opposite sexes and that couples of the same sex do not run the risk of unintended offspring. That explanation, still relevant today, suffices to allow the States to retain authority over an issue they have regulated from the beginning.

To take another rational explanation for the decision of many States not to expand the definition of marriage, a State might wish to wait and see before changing a norm that our society (like all others) has accepted for centuries. That is not preserving tradition for its own sake. No one here claims that the States' original definition of marriage was unconstitutional when enacted. The plaintiffs' claim is that the States have acted irrationally in standing by the traditional definition in the face of changing social mores. Yet one of the key insights of federalism is that it permits laboratories of experimentation—accent on the plural—allowing one State to innovate one way, another State another, and a third State to assess the trial and error over time.

As a matter of state law, the possibility of gay marriage became real in 2003 with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision in Goodridge. Eleven years later, the clock has not run on assessing the benefits and burdens of expanding the definition of marriage. Eleven years indeed is not even the right timeline. The fair question is whether in 2004, one year after Goodridge, Michigan voters could stand by the traditional definition of marriage.

How can we say that the voters acted irrationally for sticking with the seen benefits of thousands of years of adherence to the traditional definition of marriage in the face of one year of experience with a new definition of marriage? A State still assessing how this has worked, whether in 2004 or 2014, is not showing irrationality, just a sense of stability and an interest in seeing how the new definition has worked elsewhere.

Even today, the only thing anyone knows for sure about the long-term impact of redefining marriage is that they do not know. A Burkean sense of caution does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, least of all when measured by a timeline less than a dozen years long and when assessed by a system of government designed to foster step-by-step, not sudden winner-take-all, innovations to policy problems.

In accepting these justifications for the four States' marriage laws, we do not deny the foolish, sometimes offensive, inconsistencies that have haunted marital legislation from time to time. States will hand some people a marriage license no matter how often they have divorced or remarried, apparently on the theory that practice makes perfect. States will not even prevent an individual from remarrying the same person three or four times, where practice no longer seems to be the issue.

With love and commitment nowhere to be seen, States will grant a marriage license to two friends who wish to share in the tax and other material benefits of marriage, at least until the State's no-fault divorce laws allow them to exit the partnership freely. And States allow couples to continue procreating no matter how little stability, safety, and love they provide the children they already have. Nor has unjustified sanctimony stayed off the stage when it comes to marital legislation—with monogamists who "do not monog" criticizing alleged polygamists who "do not polyg."

How, the claimants ask, could anyone possibly be unworthy of this civil institution? Aren't gay and straight couples both capable of honoring this civil institution in some cases and of messing it up in others? All of this, however, proves much too much. History is replete with examples of love, sex, and marriage tainted by hypocrisy. Without it, half of the world's literature, and three-quarters of its woe, would disappear.

Throughout, we have never leveraged these inconsistencies about deeply personal, sometimes existential, views of marriage into a ground for constitutionalizing the field. Instead, we have allowed state democratic forces to fix the problems as they emerge and as evolving community mores show they should be fixed. Even if we think about today's issue and today's alleged inconsistencies solely from the perspective of the claimants in this case, it is difficult to call that formula, already coming to terms with a new view of marriage, a failure.

Any other approach would create line-drawing problems of its own. Consider how plaintiffs' love-and-commitment definition of marriage would fare under their own rational basis test. Their definition does too much because it fails to account for the reality that no State in the country requires couples, whether gay or straight, to be in love. Their definition does too little because it fails to account for plural marriages, where there is no reason to think that three or four adults, whether gay, bisexual, or straight, lack the capacity to share love, affection, and commitment, or for that matter lack the capacity to be capable (and more plentiful) parents to boot. If it is constitutionally irrational to stand by the man-woman definition of marriage, it must be constitutionally irrational to stand by the monogamous definition of marriage.

Plaintiffs have no answer to the point. What they might say they cannot: They might say that tradition or community mores provide a rational basis for States to stand by the monogamy definition of marriage, but they cannot say that because that is exactly what they claim is illegitimate about the States' male-female definition of marriage. The predicament does not end there. No State is free of marriage policies that go too far in some directions and not far enough in others, making all of them vulnerable—if the claimants' theory of rational basis review prevails.

Several cases illustrate just how seriously the federal courts must take the line-drawing deference owed the democratic process under rational basis review. Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia, 427 U.S. 307 (1976), holds that a State may require law enforcement officers to retire without exception at age fifty, in order to assure the physical fitness of its police force. If a rough correlation between age and strength suffices to uphold exception-free retirement ages (even though some fifty-year-olds swim/bike/run triathlons), why doesn't a correlation between male-female intercourse and procreation suffice to uphold traditional marriage laws (even though some straight couples don't have kids and many gay couples do)?

Armour v. City of Indianapolis, 132 S. Ct. 2073 (2012), says that if a city cancels a tax, the bureaucratic hassle of issuing refunds entitles it to keep money already collected from citizens who paid early. If administrative convenience amounts to an adequate public purpose, why not a rough sense of social stability?

More deferential still, Kotch v. Board of River Port Pilot Commissioners, 330 U.S. 552 (1947), concludes that a State's interest in maintaining close ties among those who steer ships in its ports justifies denying pilotage licenses to anyone who isn't a friend or relative of an incumbent pilot. Can we honestly say that traditional marriage laws involve more irrationality than nepotism?

The debate over marriage of course has another side, and we cannot deny the costs to the plaintiffs of allowing the States to work through this profound policy debate. The traditional definition of marriage denies gay couples the opportunity to publicly solemnize, to say nothing of subsidize, their relationships under state law. In addition to depriving them of this status, it deprives them of benefits that range from the profound (the right to visit someone in a hospital as a spouse or parent) to the mundane (the right to file joint tax returns). These harms affect not only gay couples but also their children.

Do the benefits of standing by the traditional definition of marriage make up for these costs? The question demands an answer—but from elected legislators, not life-tenured judges. Our task under the Supreme Court's precedents is to decide whether the law has some conceivable basis, not to gauge how that rationale stacks up against the arguments on the other side. Respect for democratic control over this traditional area of state expertise ensures that "a statewide deliberative process that enable[s] its citizens to discuss and weigh arguments for and against same-sex marriage" can have free and reasonable rein. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. at 2689.

Retaining the traditional opposite-sex-only marriage rule is, I think, on balance unwise. It may be unfair. It might be unconstitutional if heightened scrutiny is required. But I don't think it's irrational.