Friday, July 23, 2010

Reading the Tea leaves from the Supreme Court

From The New York Times:
The sentence was resolutely bland and nicely hidden in a long Supreme Court decision issued on the last day of the term.

All it said was this: “Our decisions have declined to distinguish between status and conduct in this context.” But the context mattered. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, was talking about laws affecting gay men and lesbians.

Slipping that thought into a case about the treatment of a Christian student group reminded some of a technique perfected by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., whose fellow justices were wary of his “time bombs.”.....

Justice Ginsburg’s bland talk about status and conduct was significant because courts are more apt to protect groups whose characteristics are immutable. Calling sexual orientation a status may not require the conclusion that being gay is immutable rather than a choice, but it certainly suggests it.

The decision in which the statement appeared, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, considered whether a public law school could deny recognition to a student group that excluded gay men and lesbians. The majority decided the case on narrow grounds that barely acknowledged the clash between anti-discrimination principles and religious freedom.

Barely, but not entirely. In her brisk aside, Justice Ginsburg put the muscle of a majority decision behind a proposition that had attracted only one vote when the court struck down a Texas law making gay sex a crime in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas.

“Texas’s sodomy law is targeted at more than conduct,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a concurrence. “It is instead directed toward gay persons as a class.”

The Christian Legal Society decision was notable, too, because it was the only one in an argued case in the last term in which Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined the court’s four more liberal members in a 5-to-4 decision. It is inconceivable that advocates for same-sex marriage can win in the current Supreme Court without his vote.

Some scholars cautioned against reading too much into very limited information culled from an inapposite decision.....

Others were prepared to go a little further.

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