Friday, April 3, 2009

Iowa Supreme Court Unanimously Rules in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage

According to the Des Moines Register, Iowa's Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that Iowa's equal protection clause requires the state to recognize same-sex marriages. The Iowa Court, in a sixty-nine page opinion, started by recognizing the role of the court in reviewing same-sex marriage cases; a topic we've had ample occasion to discuss around these parts.

As they noted at the outset: "[w]e approach the resolution of this case with a keen and respectful understanding of our Iowa Constitution and the vital roles of the three branches of government, as well as the role of the people." Varnum v. Brian, No. 07-1499, slip op. at 12 (Iowa Apr. 3, 2009). After noting that the constitutional question of whether a prohibition on same-sex marriage violates Iowa's equal protection clause provided a justification for adjudicating the case, the Court proceeded to address the merits of the equal protection argument.

The Court explained that, under Iowa law, the equal protection standard of review for this case hinged on four factors: (1) the history of discrimination against gay and lesbian people, id. at 37, (2) sexual orientation and the ability to contribute to society, id. at 39, (3) immutability of sexual orientation, id. at 41 and (4) the political powerlessness of lesbian and gay people. Id. at 45. Based on the factors, the Court held that Iowa gay marriage bans should be analyzed "under a heightened level of scrutiny under the Iowa Constitution." Id. at 49.

Proceeding under the auspice of intermediate scrutiny, the Court turned to strike down Iowa's marriage statute holding the statutory classification preventing gay marriage was not "substantially related to an important governmental objective." Id. at 50. In particular, the Court rejected the "governmental objectives" proferred by the government including " support for the 'traditional' institution of marriage, the optimal procreation and rearing of children, and financial considerations." Id.

I find the decision interesting for a number of reasons. First, I'm surprised the Court bothered to devote as much ink as it did to the "role of the Court" issue. As far as I can tell, there's really no separation of powers issue in this case, nor could there be. I think the focus on it shows how concerned courts are with the public reaction to these cases. Second, I think it's noteworthy that the Court declined to apply strict scrutiny, and opted to strike the marriage statute at issue down under intermediate scrutiny. Doing so, as I see it, sends a more powerful statement (much like the unanimous decision) which is important in the face of such adament opposition. It's unsurprising that other Courts have used similar tactics in the past. In Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), for example, the Court struck down a discriminatory state amendment reflecting an animus to homosexuals under the low-level rational basis test. See id. at 632 (holding that the amendment "lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests.").

So what's next for gay marriage? If the past is any indication, there will probably be more restrictive statutes, and public opposition. But this is a welcome victory for the movement that will be persuasive precedent in other state courts.


UPDATE (1:05 PM): A lot has been said since the Iowa Court handed down its ruling, and there's been some interesting commentary here and elsewhere. We wanted to take the opportunity to point our readers to some other ongoing discussions:

Above the Law- Iowa Supreme Court Strikes Down Gay Marriage Ban

LawDork 2.0- Iowa Law: What's Next?

Volokh Conspiracy- Iowa Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decision

We'll continue to post any other articles we think you'd find interesting.


UPDATE (2:55 PM): Building upon earlier predictions that Iowa will seek to "overturn" its Supreme Court's decision via constitutional amendment, I'm posting this article from Volokh Conspiracy which confirms that the process for amending Iowa's constitution would take a while to implement.


  1. I am getting so sick of people at this website. The legal reasoning here is flawed...the decision is flawed. What right does the IOWA SC have to strike a law banning something, when the PEOPLE chose it in the first place? NONE. Furthermore, gay marriage is inherently wrong morally, but that is besides the point. The worst thing is promulgating this type of garbage on a blog.

  2. Note-Hopefully the U.S. Supreme Court will fix this abomination

  3. Jeff:
    Here's a syllogism I think you can follow.

    (1) We're a legal blog
    (2) Courts rule on legal things (they're called issues)
    (3) We report and/or analyze on what Courts rule on

    (1) We're a legal blog
    (2) Gay marriage is an issue a court has recently considered
    (3) We, in turn, report and analyze the Iowa gay marriage ruling.

    Is the sharing of a legal opinion on a blog the equivalent to 'promulgating[...] garbage?' Um, no.

    Jeff, you seem like a guy in touch with his religious side--Perhaps you can pray to St. Fu.

  4. Note- if Craig's analysis is correct, then there isn't a damn thing the U.S. Supremes can do about this.

  5. Footnote 6 = epic pwnage of Federal review. Sorry Jeff... no Supreme review for you!

  6. See Michigan v. Long ("if [a] state court chooses merely to rely on federal precedents as it would on precedents of all other jurisdictions, then it need only make clear by plain statement in its judgment or opinion that federal cases are being used only for purpose of guidance, and do not themselves compel result that court has reached.")

  7. Iowa will overturn this via constitutional amendment a la California

  8. I don't understand why the Supreme Court can't hear this case but it doesnt matter because they'll here the Proposition 8 case probably. Or something else. There's no way this stands, it's blatantly unconstitutional.

  9. Jeff,

    What makes me sick is reading comments from people who make comments in passing about what is "inherently wrong morally." Obviously, your anger on this issue is deeply rooted in something other than your knowledge of law, which is probably a good thing because I am astounded by the number of mistakes in your legal reasoning above.

    If you don't like gay marriage, don't get one, and if you don't like reading other people's analysis of court cases, don't read them.

  10. @12:38:
    According to the commentary at ATL (fwiw), the Iowa constitutional amendment process requires an amendment to be passed by both houses of the legislature on 2 consecutive terms and then accepted by a majority of the electorate. That would put the target date at least 2 years out before this could be touched by amendment.

    @ Jeff:
    The reason that the U.S. Supremes can't hear this case is because of the concepts of federalism and dual sovereignty. Moreover, unless you have some sort of inside-track on the Prop. 8 opinion's drafting, you can't know if it will be federally-reviewable. It will most likely be unreviewable by the U.S. Supremes b/c the law and the proposition are exclusive state issues and were rooted overwhelmingly in state law.

    @ 1:29.
    Well said.

  11. @ Fred--

    It appears the reasoning you cited from Above the Law is correct. Per Volokh Conspiracy: Amending the Iowa Constitution Would Take Time. I'll post this as an update in the main thread as well.

    @ Jeff--

    There's absolutely nothing the Supreme Court can do in this case...Michigan v. Long is controlling, as Fred correctly notes.

    You're entitled to your views, but you do need to understand that we're just reporting on what's happening in the legal world. Everything in my original post was summarizing what the Court did, except for the last paragraph where I pointed out two things that--in my opinion--were interesting. So I'm not really promulgating anything, but my own opinion (and am only doing so in a limited fashion). Continue to feel free to disagree, though we'd prefer you do so in a slightly-less bombastic fashion.

  12. N.B. One other observation I'll post here, rather in the main body: the Iowa Supreme Court, so far as I know, depended on at *least* two student notes. One of them was brought to my attention by LawDork 2.0, and the other by the Editor-and-Chief of the law journal I'm on, as a former comment from my journal was also cited in the opinion.

    Given the prior discussions here regarding the merits of student scholarship, I find this very interesting and will be addressing this topic further in the days to come.

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