Supreme Court Rulings 2013: Who's Really Protecting Us, Congress Or the Courts?

It seems that our courts have been busy this week as decisions were made regarding same-sex marriage and voting rights. The Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional in a 5 to 4 vote on Wednesday. The day before, that same court voted to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which previously prohibited nine designated states from changing their voting laws without prior clearance from the federal government.

It is the role of our judiciary system, in terms of constitutional law, to ensure equal justice for all Americans and to uphold our rights as citizens afforded to us by the Constitution. When the legal system works for those basic rights, it protects us (or tries to) from legislation that could later infringe on those rights.

In the case of DOMA, the court held that the legislation is “unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” The Fifth Amendment provides that “no person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” 

The opinion of this court found that DOMA “seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Gov­ernment.” Because New York State decided to allow same-sex marriages, which is an action “without doubt a proper exercise of its sovereign authority within our federal system, all in the way that the Framers of the Constitu­tion intended,” DOMA violates New York State's legal acknowledgement of that intimate relationship. The court's opinion continued, “The Constitution’s guarantee of equality ‘must at the very least mean a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot’ justify disparate treatment of that group.”

Yet even with this landmark decision, there will be continued (if not in some instances) heightened resistance from same-sex marriage opponents, resulting in actions on the legislative front.

This is what happened and continues to happen with the subject of abortion. Although the Supreme Court found so many years ago that state laws criminalizing abortion laws violate the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which “protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy,” legislators are still trying to enact proposals such as the 20-week abortion ban passed by the House last week. 

While the courts may be the only defense on some issues, it could be the nail in the coffin for others such as voting rights. Because the court found Section 4 unconstitutional and that “its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance,” state legislatures can now implement measures such as redistricting maps or mandatory voter ID registration. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has already said, “The state’s voter identification plan would immediately take effect, requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.” The court decided that “’turnout and registration rates’ in covered jurisdictions ‘now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.’” Apparently, because we have an African American president, we no longer need protections from racial discrimination in voting. It looks like we will have to turn to our legislators here.

While it may be good that when our legislative system fails, we have the option of turning to our legal system for justice, but as contemporary society proves, this is not always the case.

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Melanie Breault

Melanie Breault just returned from teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. She now works for a women's nonprofit in Downtown NYC. She earned her bachelor's degree in economic and political journalism from Ithaca College in upstate New York. She likes to tackle issues facing marginalized workers and struggling students in her free time.

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