Today in Legal History: Obergefell latest in long line of landmark rulings

June 26, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryEarlier this morning, the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, holding 5-4 that the “Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”

Obergefell falls on the same date as a number of other major Supreme Court decisions – including the most recent significant same-sex marriage decisions handed down by the Court.  Here is a brief summary of some of the most significant rulings celebrating their anniversary today.

United States v. Virginia – Decided June 26, 1996

U.S. v. Virginia is the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling striking down the Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI’s) male-only admission policy as violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  In addition to marking the end of the last remaining all-male public university in the U.S., the decision invalidated any law that “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature – equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”

Vacco v. Quill – Decided June 26, 1997

In Vacco v. Quill, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that there is no legal “right to die” under the Constitution.  The case involved a New York law that criminalized physician-assisted suicide, regardless of whether the patient consented.

Although the decision was unanimous, there were five separate concurrences beyond the majority opinion, for a total of six different opinions – clearly reflecting the contentious nature of the issue.

Although the question has not revisted the Court, an increasing number of states are allowing the practice, so the Court may once again find itself faced with this difficult question.

Lawrence v. Texas – Decided June 26, 2003

The landmark Lawrence was decided exactly ten years prior to a set of cases also on this list – U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry – to which it bears striking similarities.  Lawrence is, of course, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the state sodomy laws of Texas and 13 other states, thereby marking the end of the criminalization of homosexual activity.

The ruling explicitly overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the Court ruled in the opposite manner on the same issue only 17 years prior – indeed demonstrating the beginning of changing of attitudes on LGBTQ individuals, not just among the justices of the Supreme Court, but among members of the public at large.

District of Columbia v. Heller – Decided June 26, 2008

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has existed since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, but it wasn’t until this day in 2008 that the Supreme Court interpreted the amendment to create a “right to bear arms” – that is, the right to possess a firearm for purposes of self-defense within the home.

The narrowly decided case (5-4 along ideological lines) only applied to federal gun control laws, but the “right to bear arms” was expanded to limit the reach of state laws two years later in McDonald v. Chicago.  With the ever-increasing amount of gun violence seen by the country, it may be only a matter of time before new gun regulations are challenged and the issue comes before the Court once again.

United States v. Windsor / Hollingsworth v. Perry – Decided June 26, 2013

This closely related pair of cases marked a major victory for same-sex marriage advocates.  While the holding of Perry was limited to state of California (and did serve to effectively legalize same-sex marriage in the state), Windsor sent shockwaves through the nation as a whole, leading to a cascade of challenges to state same-sex marriage bans that have been largely successful – and the ones that were not successful were taken up by the Supreme Court in the consolidated case Obergefell v. Hodges, on which the Court will rule before the end of June.

Obergefell has become the landmark case for same-sex marriage that Loving v. Virginia was for interracial marriage, and it was only made possible because of the groundwork laid by Windsor just two years prior.

NLRB v. Noel Canning – Decided June 26, 2014

Although not involving issues as socially charged as some of the above cases, Canning nevertheless represents a significant judicial encroachment into presidential recess appointment powers – an area of executive power left untouched since the days of President George Washington.  Although the three challenged appointments at the center of the case were invalidated by the Court, the actual limitations imposed by the Court on the presidential power were modest at best – but they were a limitation nonetheless, the first imposed in history.

And now, with Obergefell’s decision on June 26, 2015, June 26 is not only a significant date for a number of important Supreme Court rulings, but also a day of special importance for those decisions advancing LGBTQ rights.