Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The end of the world as we know it

...and I feel fine!

I'm trying to track this down for the sake of accuracy, but SCOTUS blog hasn't published anything on the ruling yet (and may not say much, indicative of how unimportant the Supreme Court ruling is in this case at this point).  So let's start with what I can verify:

The case will now proceed in a Texas state court, which could decide to stop the benefits offered by the fourth most populous U.S. city. Such a ruling again could be appealed to the nation’s top court.

Houston City Attorney Ron Lewis said that in the meantime the city’s policy to provide the benefits will remain in effect.
I start there because if you read something like this:

Houston had challenged a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court in June that overturned a lower court’s decision to grant spousal benefits to gay city employees. The state’s all-Republican high court had issued its ruling amid pressure from conservative officials who argued that Texas may be able to limit the scope of the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which held that same-sex couples should be granted the fundamental right to marry. The Texas court argued that while Obergefell gives same-sex couples the right to marry, it does not necessarily grant them benefits. Monday’s decision was handed down quietly, with no comment or explanation. The move quickly triggered condemnation by activists. “Today’s abnegation by the nation’s highest court opens the door for an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the civil-rights group GLAAD, said in a statement.

You'd be right to think the Beast with "666" stamped on his forehead had risen from the sea.   Here is a slightly clearer explanation of what's going on:

The two conservatives [the plaintiffs, i.e.] argued that city employees did not have a "fundamental right" to receive government-subsidized spousal benefits and that it was "perfectly constitutional" to extend benefits to some married couples and deny them to others.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed that the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision did not address that specific issue.

"Pidgeon and the mayor, like many other litigants throughout the country, must now assist the courts in fully exploring Obergefell's reach and ramifications, and are entitled to the opportunity to do so," Justice Jeffrey Boyd wrote in the Texas Supreme Court's decision, which sends the case back to the original trial court in Houston. "We reverse the court of appeals' judgment, vacate the trial court's temporary injunction order."
Now, we elect judges in Texas (what, you want Greg Abbott or Rick Perry appointing them?), so there was some politicking involved in the case before it went up to the Supremes:

The Texas Supreme Court initially declined to hear the case, which challenged Houston’s benefits policy for married same-sex couples. In an 8-1 decision, justices let stand a lower court decision upholding benefits.

But the state's high court reversed course last month under pressure from top Texas Republicans. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an amicus brief in October asking the all-Republican court to reconsider. They also asked the court to clarify that the U.S. Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges, does not “bind state courts to resolve all other claims in favor of the right to same-sex marriage.” 

That's actually where the outrage should fall, because of the status of the case when the Texas Supreme Court reviewed it a second time:

The justices on the state high court declined to hear an appeal on the case in late 2016, but caved in after Gov. Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick and state Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton all filed amicus briefs with the court asking the justices to review it.

When the Texas Supreme Court actually reviewed the case last June, they threw out a lower court ruling that had sided with Houston, ordering the lower court to hold a new trial. They concluded that Obergefell may have granted the right for same-sex marriage, but the federal decision “did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.” Lawyers representing Houston appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. 
The Texas Supremes punted, in other words:  they told the trial court to try again, without the assumption Obergefell had settled the issue.  In other words, as the Court said, they want the parties to give them the legal fig leaf they need to get Abbott and Patrick and Paxton off their backs and to avoid primary challenges next year.   It's an act of judicial cowardice that they hope will allow them to reach the same conclusion again without being responsible for it.  Now you can see why the City of Houston appealed, having won the first time around.  And the Supremes used the excuse of remand for a new trial to decline to interfere in the case, which isn't really a surprise as this is a question of state law first, not of federal law.  Which, technically, is what's going on in Masterpiece Cakeshops, Inc. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, although the question of the 1st Amendment has (ridiculously, IMHO) been raised (basically, if the baker is an "artist," does he design and make cakes hoping to sell them, or does he work strictly on commission, i.e., by the job?  If so, how can he refuse to bake cakes because of sexual orientation, if he can't refuse to do it for Jews?  OTOH, Scotusblog tells me Justice Breyer noted a ruling for the baker would “undermine every civil rights law since year 2.”  Hope springs eternal.).  But the Court doesn't consider this issue "ripe" yet, as there are no conflicting state court rulings under Obergefell, so it isn't really a surprise they declined the appeal.

But has Texas now decided that same-sex couples can be discriminated against, even if they are married?  Well, the cities of Dallas and Houston don't think so.  Indeed, the Texas Supreme Court isn't even sure itself.   And it pretty clearly wishes this issue would just go away.

Life's a bench.

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