Let me begin with the caveat that it is always hazardous to predict what the Supreme Court is going to do from reports at oral argument (See, e.g., the health care case). That said, I want to explore what seems most likely to happen at this point with the Supreme Court’s term, and what it would mean. My best guess today is that Justice Kennedy will be in slim majorities reaching the following results: the Court will not recognize a right to same sex marriage in the California Proposition 8 case, although the means of doing so will likely leave a lower court ruling enjoining California from enforcing Proposition 8 standing; that the Court will strike down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as an unconstitutional affront to traditional state power to define and regulate marriage; that the Court will hold that the coverage formula of section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is an unconstitutional affront to state sovereignty, leaving open the possibility that the Congress could rework a new coverage formula more closely tied to current evidence of intentional racial discrimination in the sates (something Congress will never do); and the Court will not issue a far-reaching decision in the University of Texas affirmative action case, leaving open some issues to be addressed in future cases in future terms, such as the Michigan case the Court just agreed to hear.
If this is the end result of the term, parts will make conservatives mad (such as striking down DOMA, and making the federal government pay same sex benefits to those whose same-sex marriages are recognized by their state) and parts will make liberals mad (such as effectively striking down a crown jewel of the civil rights movement, and failing to go all the way and recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage).
Justice Kennedy will probably feel pretty good about a term like this, and in the past he hasn’t minded being alone, in the middle, frustrating his colleagues on the left and the right. I think of his opinion in the partisan gerrymandering case of Veith v. Jubelirer, where his four conservative colleagues took the position that courts could not hear partisan gerrymandering claims (because they presented political questions with unmanageable judicial standards) and his four liberal colleagues offered a host of standards for reining in partisan gerrymandering, parading them in beauty pageant fashion for Justice Kennedy. Justice Kennedy took the position that the cases could be heard, but so far no one had come up with any standard to police the constitutionality of such gerrymandering. It was a somewhat inscrutable opinion—keeping the issue open to percolate some more and saying plaintiffs can come to court with these claims which they would continue to lose, until Justice Kennedy found a standard he liked (he still hasn’t).
So Justice Kennedy is fine with 4-1-4 splits on the Court (although some things he might do on standing could bring along additional votes—the Chief, for example, might go along with a decision to find that Prop. 8 initiative proponents have no standing rather than write or join a fiery dissent extolling the virtues of traditional marriage). The vision will be one of state’s rights, and defended in a kind of lofty language that treats the states as though they were people with feelings. Justice Kennedy’s nation is one in which Congress and the executive must defer to the power of states in a variety of spheres, intruding only when necessary and the means proportional (Justice Kennedy might say something similar to this in the Arizona voting case, about Congress’s ability to specify that states must accept what the federal government thinks is enough to prove an individual’s citizenship entitling her to vote).
The question will be whether, if we get the summer of Federalism, the other Justices will want to weigh in on the merits of issues that are likely to return to the Court at a later date. A Kennedy opinion holding section 3 of DOMA a violation of states’ rights might be joined by four other Justices in full or in result, with a concurring opinion reaching the merits of the right to gay marriage. Justice Ginsburg and others may want to come out against “skim milk” marriages. The same may happen in the Prop. 8 case. Even if the Court dismisses on standing grounds, or especially if the four liberal Justices and Kennedy join to dismiss the case as improvidently granted, it could well fall to Justice Scalia, Alito, or Thomas to write that fiery dissent extolling traditional marriage and rejecting a living Constitution and the evolution of norms of constitutional conduct.
In the Voting Rights Act case, Justice Kennedy would be joined by the conservatives in striking down the Act, and I am confident of a fiery dissent from the four liberal members. The big question will be how far a VRA strike would go: would it open up the door to cases challenging section 2 of the Act, or section 203 (the language provisions), or portions of the Civil Rights Act? Liberal justices may want to lay down a marker. Some of these questions might depend upon what the Court does in the affirmative action case, but the grant of cert in the Michigan case suggests these issues are still going to kick around the Court for a while before the end of affirmative action. If the Court rejects the University of Texas plan on race grounds, it would be the one major case where a constitutional right (here, the white applicant’s right to equal protection) which would trump the state’s right to decide on admission’s policy.
In the end, we’ll all be living in Justice Kennedy’s world. As we already are.