Amid all the controversy surrounding the recent SCOTUS decisions, it is easy to forget that federal courts do not have a monopoly on judicial activism. State courts—and in particular state supreme courts—can and do make bad decisions, often cleverly insulating themselves from further appellate review by resting their decisions on “independent state grounds.”
While many have celebrated the result in Obergefell v. Hodges, fewer have praised the craftsmanship of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion. That is as it should be because the opinion is longer on sentiment and empathy than legal analysis. And yet it is now as much a part of the United States Reporter as the most well-reasoned judgment. Thus, it is worth looking at its doctrinal implications, none of which are happy.
First, Kennedy consciously removes the historical constraints on the Court’s ability to declare new fundamental rights. Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), the most important modern substantive due process case, required fundamental rights to be deeply rooted in the history and tradition of America. Whatever else can be said about it, same-sex marriage does not begin to meet that test. Kennedy says correctly that some other substantive due process cases did not meet that test either (Roe comes obviously to mind). While Kennedy does not quite say that he is overruling Glucksberg altogether, its relevance has been gravely weakened. Justices seem free to look to their views on the nature of justice rather than history to discern new fundamental rights.
While some libertarians in the past have been enthusiastic about this development, it is unlikely the Court will use this power to pursue economic liberties. I think this development is likelier to revive claims that some other social rights, like the right to assisted suicide, are also constitutional ones.
Kennedy also gestured to the equal protection clause in his decision.