Will International Law Impact the Gay Marriage Cases? Conservatives Seem to Hope So.

by Peter Spiro

It should be no surprise that there is an amicus brief in support of striking down the Defense of Marriage Act from a global angle, charting an international trend towards recognition of same-sex marriages. (The brief is on behalf of a select lawprof group – Harold Koh, Sarah Cleveland, Larry Helfer, and Ryan Goodman, part of a trend toward elite, small-list amici filings also evident here and here.) The brief skillfully plays to the Court’s self-interest and the opportunity to enhance its international prestige: “Courts in other countries have invoked this Court’s reasoning in Lawrence, for example, to strike down laws that impinge upon the intimate relations between gay and lesbian couples. The Court’s ruling in this case is likely to have similar influence.” That’s a line that might appeal to a certain swing Justice.

At the same time, there’s no hint in the brief that international law requires the recognition of gay marriage, an argument that would be hard to make. The brief does no overreaching, well advised in the face of serious blowback to the Court’s recent invocations of international law on the way to progressive results. The caution starts with the cover page: the brief is filed on behalf of “foreign and comparative law experts,” not international law ones.

Leave the international law argument to . . . Jeremy Rabkin?

Rabkin and a group of mostly European academics and former jurists have filed a brief in support of California’s decision (through the ballot measure Proposition 8) to reserve marriage for opposite-sex couples. The basic argument: most countries have left the question to democratic processes, which “national and international courts have overwhelmingly refused to trump.” That fact establishes, the brief argues, that there are “rational, non-invidious reasons based in secular public policy considerations” for a jurisdiction’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage. Variation on the question is fully compatible with “international norms.” [My quotation marks, not theirs!]

The brief carefully qualifies the salience of international practice. “Of course, foreign law and practice cannot and should not determine the meaning of U.S. Constitutional guarantees.” But that practice apparently stands as an empirical resource, a “lesson,” at least.

In the end, I suspect the Court will ignore foreign and international practice in the Windsor and Perry decisions, consistent with its recent posture to things foreign. But the gay marriage cases might mark an important turning point on this particular front of the Culture Wars. With their brief, conservatives may have conceded the threshold salience of international practices. The door can’t be completely shut on this material, whether the Court expressly acknowledges it or not. Once they’ve played the international law card themselves, conservatives can hardly cry foul next time it’s played against them. (Rabkin himself will have to lose the label “fantasy world“ when speaking of international law.) Perhaps conservatives have come to understand that they can win on this turf, too. (Check out Justice Scalia’s dissent in Roper for pointers.) The bottom line: global practice becomes more deeply entrenched in the everyday of American constitutional law.

http://opiniojuris.org/2013/03/24/will-international-law-impact-the-gay-marriage-cases-conservatives-seem-to-hope-so/

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