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COURSEY: One step forward, one step back

The Supreme Court giveth, and the Supreme Court taketh away.

Friends and neighbors are celebrating this morning, jubilant about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and refuse to consider a case in support of California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in this state. The twin announcement early today effectively removes federal discrimination against same-sex couples and adds California to the list of states that legally recognize such marriages.

Let the champagne toasts begin.

But the court's affirmation of basic civil rights for gay couples comes on the heels of a Tuesday decision that struck a blow to the civil rights of minorities that had been protected for nearly 50 years by the ground-breaking Voting Rights Act.

One step forward, and one step back.

It's hard to see this any other way, and even more difficult to understand it. While the court on the one hand decided that a federal refusal to recognize same-sex marriage violates the Fifth Amendment because it treats such marriages as "less respected" than others, it found on the other hand that voting-rights protections aren't needed any more because they have worked so well over the years.

The good news/bad news decisions highlighted the ideological divide on the court, with both 5-4 votes decided by the support of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who joined the conservative wing to strike down key sections of the Voting Rights and then sided with the liberals in upholding the rights of same-sex couples.

Maybe he was trying to even out the scales of justice. But can there be such a thing as too many civil rights?

The voting rights decision is particularly confounding, because the court majority said, in effect, that the law isn't necessary because it works so well. Imagine, 50 years from now, the Supreme Court deciding that because same-sex couples are able to get married and live happily ever after in all 50 states, it is now OK to declare unconstitutional the laws that allow those couples to marry.

That's essentially the logic the court's majority used in the voting rights case. Or, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her dissent, doing away with a key section of the Voting Rights Act "when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."


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