Bench Memos

Good Question from Justice Sotomayor—and Not Much of an Answer

Justice Sotomayor asks Ted Olson (p. 46):

Mr. Olson, the bottom line that you’re being asked — and — and it is one that I’m interested in the answer: If you say that marriage is a fundamental right, what State restrictions could ever exist? Meaning, what State restrictions with respect to the number of people, with respect to — that could get married — the incest laws, the mother and child, assuming that they are the age — I can — I can accept that the State has probably an overbearing interest on — on protecting a child until they’re of age to marry, but what’s left?

In response, Olson concocts an untenable distinction between status and conduct (pp. 46-47):

Well, you’ve said — you’ve said in the cases decided by this Court that the polygamy issue, multiple marriages raises questions about exploitation, abuse, patriarchy, issues with respect to taxes, inheritance, child custody, it is an entirely different thing. And if you — if a State prohibits polygamy, it’s prohibiting conduct.

If it prohibits gay and lesbian citizens from getting married, it is prohibiting their exercise of a right based upon their status. It’s selecting them as a class, as you described in the Romer case and as you described in the Lawrence case and in other cases, you’re picking out a group of individuals to deny them the freedom that you’ve said is fundamental, important and vital in this society, and it has status and stature, as you pointed out in the VMI case.

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