The “momentum effect” in same-sex marriage litigation

May 27

Robert Barnes has a story in the Washington Post today about the unanimous embrace of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in recent federal judicial decisions. (It has the catchy lede: “The headlines are so consistent, they could be written by a computer: ‘Judge strikes down state ban on gay marriage.’”

Barnes quotes me hypothesizing about the “momentum effect”:

District courts are the trial level of the federal judiciary, and, unlike rulings from appeals courts and the Supreme Court, the decisions of district judges do not create precedents for others to follow.

“But there has to be some kind of momentum effect” to the string of nearly identical rulings, said William Baude, a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. who teaches law at the University of Chicago and has closely followed the decisions.

Cases are randomly assigned, but nine of the district judges who have struck down the bans were appointed by either President Obama or former president Bill Clinton. Baude theorizes that the unanimity of the decisions may be a result of quick action by judges who strongly believe that the constitutional right to marriage must extend to gay couples.

Judges who disagree may be moving more slowly, he said. After all the previous decisions have gone a certain way, Baude said, “if you’re someone on the other side, you’ve got to think there’s a decent chance you’re going to be overturned or end up being on the wrong side of history.”

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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Eugene Volokh | May 27