The Supreme Court giveth and the Supreme Court taketh away. The 5-4 majority recognizing that gays and lesbians are actually human beings entitled to fully partake in the legal rights and privileges of marriage was a huge step forward for the nation. Given the extreme conservative tilt of the Roberts court, the victory was even more sublime.
Denying any minority the civil rights that the majority of American citizens enjoy, just because the majority says so, is always wrong, even though the history of our country is rife with examples of just such bias and bigotry. However, the exact same Supreme Court that gave American citizens the right to marry the person they love, also voted 5-4 to allow states to enact laws and erect legal roadblocks to restrict American citizens’ voting rights.
In the space of just two days both liberals and conservatives were given rulings that first made them cheer, and then made them jeer. Conservatives reacted to the rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 as an unconstitutional overreach by the court. In typical fashion we heard bleating from the right that five unelected justices were making law from the bench, overriding the will of the people.
Yet just the day before, when five unelected justices gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there was nary a peep of dissention from the right, just muted elation that Republican voter suppression schemes now had the support of the of the highest court in the land. A Republican controlled Senate and House had renewed the VRA in 2006, almost unanimously, and a Republican president signed the renewal, you know, the will of the people. So to be clear, in the opinion of conservatives, if the justices rule against your political worldview, it is legislating from the bench. If they rule in favor, then the justices are doing their constitutionally mandated duty. Human nature, to be sure, but still another example of political hypocrisy, practiced at the highest levels.
The reactions to the two rulings were informative. While one bestowed new legal rights on a significant segment of our society, the other threatened the hard won voting rights of seniors, the poor and people of color.
There was elation and joy throughout the LGBT community when the highest court in the land gave their fight for marriage equality and to be treated as legal equals with married heterosexuals a huge victory. In the ensuing days we saw scenes of weddings, engagements and affirmation that love is universal, because nobody has a monopoly on the heart.
The gutting of the Voting Rights Act was premised upon the canard that we have come a long way since the Jim Crow days of 1965 and institutionalized voter suppression, mainly in the old Confederate States. It took less than two hours for that rational to be upended, when the Texas Attorney General announced that the gerrymandered districts, drawn to dilute minority voting power and draconian voter ID laws, which had been stopped by the VRA, would now be fully and immediately implemented. In the following days North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida all announced new voting restrictions, whose only real consequence would be to suppress the votes of reliable Democratic coalition members.
The long-term consequences of these decisions will play out in the years to come. I suspect that “traditional” marriage will survive just fine. Marriage is a deeply personal commitment and the relationship of any two people generally does not affect the lives of people outside of their circle of close friends and family (Hollywood stars, reality show celebrities and politicians excepted). One of the last great civil rights battles of my lifetime is moving into the end game.
Voter suppression is a last gasp effort by the Republican Party to remain viable in future elections. Their far right policies are not attracting women, youth and minority voters to the party, so keeping them from the polls and creating districts that dilute their voting power is key to future victories, especially in national elections. Short term, this will be effective, but the long-term efficacy of denying some people rights shared by a majority just tends to make them work harder to get their rights back. Just ask the newlyweds in San Francisco, Los Angeles and all over California, some things are just worth fighting for.