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Justice Roberts and Gay Marriage

When the Washington, D.C., City Council passed a law last December allowing same-sex marriage in the District, the move came under almost immediate attack. Little did anyone know, the leading conservative on the Supreme Court of the United States would ultimately allow the law to take effect.

In an opinion issued on March 2, 2010, Chief Justice John Roberts declined to block the Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act from being written into the books. Opponents of same-sex marriage had asked the Supreme Court to block the law while the D.C. Court of Appeals reviewed an attempt for a ballot initiative that would allow the citizens of D.C. to repeal the law by vote.

The opinion by Justice Roberts effectively ended the opponents’ chances of pursuing a referendum, which would have allowed city voters to strike down the law before it took effect. As a result, the District of Columbia began marrying same-sex couples on March 3, one day after Justice Roberts’ decision.

The basis of his decision was threefold. First, Justice Roberts pointed out that the Supreme Court has historically deferred to “the decisions of the courts of the District of Columbia on matters of exclusively local concern.” Second, every law enacted by the D.C. City Council must go before Congress for a 30-day legislative period, during which time the law can be vetoed. Since Congress did not veto the law, Justice Roberts felt that Congress had spoken to the issue. Lastly, even though a referendum would no longer be possible, opponents to the law will still have the opportunity to fight in the D.C. Court of Appeals for a ballot initiative to repeal the law.

The position of defining marriage as between a man and a woman has been a conservative one for quite some time. Justice Roberts seems to believe that these conservative opponents of D.C.’s same-sex law had some merit in the legal claim. After all, he wrote that their “argument has some force.” However, he ruled against them despite his conservative tendencies and this supposed legitimacy to the conservative argument. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is certainly in a position of influence; his three-page opinion may turn out to be a big victory for proponents of same-sex marriage in future legal battles.