Rational basis review.
Doctrine leads to the same place as history. A first requirement of any law, whether under the Due Process or Equal Protection Clause, is that it rationally advance a legitimate government policy.
Vance v. Bradley
, 440 U.S. 93, 97 (1979). Two words (“judicial restraint,”
FCC v. Beach Commc’ns, Inc.
, 508 U.S. 307, 314 (1993)) and one principle (trust in the people that “even improvident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic process,”
, 440 U.S. at 97) tell us all we need to know about the light touch judges should use in reviewing laws under this standard. So long as judges can conceive of some “plausible” reason for the law— any
plausible reason, even one that did not motivate the legislators who enacted it—the law must stand, no matter how unfair, unjust, or unwise the judges may consider it as citizens.
Nordlinger v. Hahn
, 505 U.S. 1, 11, 17–18 (1992). A dose of humility makes us hesitant to condemn as unconstitutionally irrational a view of marriage shared not long ago by every society in the world, shared by most, if not all, of our ancestors, and shared still today by a significant number of the States. Hesitant, yes; but still a rational basis, some rational basis, must exist for the definition. What is it? Two at a minimum suffice to meet this low bar. One starts from the premise that governments got into the business of defining marriage, and remain in the business of defining marriage, not to regulate love but to regulate sex, most especially the intended and unintended effects of male-female intercourse. Imagine a society without marriage. It does not take long to envision problems that might result from an absence of rules about how to handle the natural effects of male-female intercourse: children. May men and women follow their procreative urges wherever they take them? Who is responsible for the children that result? How many mates may an individual have? How does one decide which set of mates is responsible for which set of children? That we rarely think about these questions nowadays shows only how far we have come and how relatively stable our society is, not that States have no explanation for creating such rules in the first place. Once one accepts a need to establish such ground rules, and most especially a need to create stable family units for the planned and unplanned creation of children, one can well appreciate why the citizenry would think that a reasonable first concern of any society is the need to regulate male-female relationships and the unique procreative possibilities of them. One way
DeBoer v. Snyder
Page 20 to pursue this objective is to encourage couples to enter lasting relationships through subsidies and other benefits and to discourage them from ending such relationships through these and other means. People may not need the government’s encouragement to have sex. And they may not need the government’s encouragement to propagate the species. But they may well need the government’s encouragement to create and maintain stable relationships within which children may flourish. It is not society’s laws or for that matter any one religion’s laws, but nature’s laws (that men and women complement each other biologically), that created the policy imperative. And governments typically are not second-guessed under the Constitution for prioritizing how they tackle such issues.
Dandridge v. Williams
, 397 U.S. 471, 486–87 (1970). No doubt, that is not the only way people view marriage today. Over time, marriage has come to serve another value—to solemnize relationships characterized by love, affection, and commitment. Gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of sharing such relationships. And gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of raising children and providing stable families for them. The quality of such relationships, and the capacity to raise children within them, turns not on sexual orientation but on individual choices and individual commitment. All of this supports the policy argument made by many that marriage laws should be extended to gay couples, just as nineteen States have done through their own sovereign powers. Yet it does not show that the States, circa 2014, suddenly must look at this policy issue in just one way on pain of violating the Constitution. The signature feature of rational basis
review is that governments will not be placed in the dock for doing too much or for doing too little in addressing a policy question.