Times were different in 2006 when Judge Wilkinson wrote the Duke Law Journal piece excerpted below, Gay Rights and American Constitutionalism: What’s a Constitution For?
The California Supreme Court had not yet construed that State’s constitution to provide a right to same-sex marriage. But the citizens of Virginia were considering an amendment to that State’s constitution (an amendment that ultimately passed).
Judge Wilkinson argued against using a constitutional amendment as a “ preemptive strike against what some hypothetical court in some hypothetical jurisdiction might some day say.” He thought that “it would be astonishing for a court applying the rational basis scrutiny used in Romer and arguably in Lawrence to hold that a state lacks a rational basis to define marriage in its public policy, resting as that policy does on centuries of tradition and experience.” And ”[i]t would be particularly astonishing for courts to make such a pronouncement in the domestic relations sphere that lies at the heart of states’ competence.” Because “Lawrence and Romer are a far cry from this momentous step,” he argued, a constitutional amendment “would simply indulge the worst suspicions about the Supreme Court, preempting a decision that may never come.”
Some additional excerpts:
A tragedy is befalling American constitutional law. Both left and right in the gay rights struggle have indiscriminately indulged the impulse to constitutionalize.
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Lawrence has been taken to task for overblown rhetoric, its overruling of precedent, its repudiation of traditional moral values, its reliance on unenumerated rights, and its resort to foreign law, most especially a decision of the European Court of Human Rights. Still, the result in Lawrence is eminently just and humane; the real flaw of the decision was to set the struggle over gay rights on a constitutional course. The Court’s lack of faith and trust in democracy was endemic. * * * [D]emocracy itself was on a decent and humane path, and the Court’s decision to preempt it with a problematic constitutional pronouncement was dangerously shortsighted.
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It would be astonishing for a court applying the rational basis scrutiny used in Romer and arguably in Lawrence to hold that a state lacks a rational basis to define marriage in its public policy, resting as that policy does on centuries of tradition and experience. It would be particularly astonishing for courts to make such a pronouncement in the domestic relations sphere that lies at the heart of states’ competence.
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The marriage amendment phenomenon then can only be viewed as a preemptive strike against what some hypothetical court in some hypothetical jurisdiction might some day say. This is an insufficient basis on which to amend foundational texts like state constitutions. A constitutional amendment is not by nature a preemptive device. It is instead an extraordinary mechanism–a tool of last resort properly reserved for situations which present no other choice. To amend a constitution preemptively, in anticipation of the proverbial rainy day, is, simply put, gratuitous. Such needless use of the amendment process is antithetical to the very essence of constitutional lawmaking and to the notion of a fundamental, guiding, and multigenerational charter. * * * Although a state with no other recourse is surely justified in responding to an activist constitutional interpretation, gratuitous amendments to our most basic documents of governance are hurtful and alienating in a way all their own.
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It is the job of legislatures, not constitutions, to reflect evolving standards and to register change from whatever direction it may arrive. Statutes are more amenable to adjustment and modification than constitutional provisions are. And American constitutional tradition has always preserved for majorities the right to overrule courts on policy matters through statutory amendment rather than through the cumbersome process of constitutional change.
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This difference between constitutional and statutory law bears quite directly on the question of gay rights. No constitution should ever assign its citizens pariah status. No constitution should relegate its citizens so symbolically and semipermanently to the shadows of national life. As a matter of statute, however, the balance changes. Statutes exist for the expression of values central to the imperative of social cohesion. Statutes legitimately articulate within limits a community’s aspirations for marriage, the raising of children, and the conduct of family life. It is in this difference between constitutional and statutory law that America strikes the balance between claims of personal rights and assertions of community prerogative.
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[T]he chief casualty of the same-sex marriage debate has been the American constitutional tradition. Although electorates understandably are more concerned with results than with process, the Framers were concerned supremely with process, and that process has made possible our civility, self-governance, and greatness as a democratic nation. * * * It is not wrong for gay citizens to wish to share fully in the life of this country, to partake of its most basic and sacred institution, and to experience the intimacy, bonding, and devotion to another that only an institution such as marriage can bring. To embrace this view one need not believe that sexual infidelities will disappear, but only that many gay couples will make good on their vows and lead fuller, richer, and more productive lives as a result. That, however, is hardly the end of the matter. Marriage between male and female is more than a matter of biological complementarity–the union of the two has been thought through the ages more mystical and profound than the separate identities of each alone. Without strong family structures, there will be no stable and healthy social order, and alternative marriage structures may weaken the sanction of law and custom necessary for human families to flourish and children to grow. These are no small risks, and present trends are not often more sound than the cumulative wisdom of the centuries. Is it too much to ask that judges and legislatures acknowledge the difficulty of this debate by leaving it to normal democratic processes? The dangers of doing otherwise are clear. When we politicize our basic documents of governance, we deepen exponentially the wounds of civic life. The more passionate an issue, the less justification there often is for constitutionalizing it. Constitutions tempt those who are much too sure they are right. Certainty is, to be sure, a constant feature of our politics–some certainties endure; others are fated to be supplanted by the certainties of a succeeding age. Neither we nor the Framers can be sure which is which, but the Framers were sure that we should debate our differences in this day’s time and arena. Their message is as clear today as it was at the Founding: Leave Constitutions alone!