The Washington Post

The Supreme Court plays catch-up

Supporters of gay and lesbian rights celebrate outside the Supreme Court Wednesday. (EPA/Michael Reynolds)

We asked WaPo reporter Joel Achenbach to write us a week in review with his reflections about the past seven days in the world — and Washington. He agreed. This is that piece.

There’s so much news breaking in Washington that I can hardly keep up with it, especially since I’m in Florida, at this moment sitting poolside under a palm tree.

(It sounds more decadent than it is; I’m as chained to the laptop as ever, and monitoring events all the way out to the edge of the solar system.)

This was a week that reminded us, in case we needed such a reminder, that the world turns, that times change, societies evolve, and there is no turning back. The world, Thomas Jefferson said, belongs to the living. Sometimes it seems as though the Supreme Court is the shaper of things, but obviously the Court is playing catch-up with the rest of society. It’s a lagging indicator, as they say. It has been only 17 years since Congress comfortably passed, and Bill Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act, but that now seems to have been in a different century, or a different millennium, even.

Ask almost any young person today: He or she cannot fathom why anyone would object  to same-sex marriage. (Gender itself is quite plastic on college campuses now; at orientation you are invited to declare your pronouns. As in, “My pronouns are she, her and hers.” You can even be non-gendered. As a fogey I fear pronoun chaos, but it’s not my call.)

The Supreme Court decision on DOMA left plenty of room for chaos and confusion about the precise legal rights of same-sex couples in states that do not recognize such marriages. Justice Kennedy and the liberal wing of the Court did not declare a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. Charles Krauthammer, perceiving that the Kennedy opinion lands on unstable ground, says the ruling must eventually lead to a nationalization of same-sex marriage rights in the same way the Court nationalized abortion rights in Roe.

Charles is displeased with this scenario. But I think in outlining why we’re on a path to full marriage equality everywhere, he explains precisely why the current situation must lead to something more comprehensive. Marriage is not supposed to be geographically contingent. Marriage should be all-or-nothing, legally. You can’t have people being almost married, sort-of married, or kinda married. You can’t have marriages defined by state lines.

Marriages, in daily practice, come in all forms and intensities. Marriages vary by degrees of happiness, intimacy, emotional commitment, sexual energy, fecundity and so on. But they have in common the fact that if one partner wants out, he or she is going to have to call a lawyer. This is a legal bond. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Unless you’re a same-sex couple in a state like Texas that doesn’t think such people can be legally married -- no matter that they have a certificate from another state, and rings, and a bunch of thank-you notes to write for all the wedding gifts.

So there is more world-turning to come. You can count on it. And ultimately the decisions are going to be made by the people, and particularly the young people, in their daily lives, and not simply by the powers that be, and the exalted figures wearing robes in a neo-Classical temple in Washington.

Postscript: Keeping with the decentralization-of-power theme, I’d like to close with an evocative passage from “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel, the bestselling account of 16th century England, starring Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer, counselor and fixer for Henry VIII. Cromwell is trying to get the troublesome Earl of Northumberland to recognize that his ancient title means little in a new age of markets and international commerce:

“How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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