Pennsylvania Family Law and Divorce
Lisa Marie Vari & Associates, P.C.

Whitewood v. Wolf: The Case for Pennsylvania Marriage Equality

A few days ago, the Honorable John E. Jones III, a Federal Judge in Pennsylvania, decided that the ban on same-sex marriage in the Commonwealth is unconstitutional. Judge Jones further explained that the refusal of Pennsylvania to recognize marriages that were preformed legally in other states is also unconstitutional. Now, the Memorandum Opinion of Judge Jones has been released, and is available to the public. Continue reading below for a breakdown of the opinion in this case.

Judge Jones begins his opinion by describing the plaintiffs in this case as "courageous...couples, one widow, and two teenage children" who have all come together to fight the Pennsylvania ban on same-sex marriage. He then gives some background on the current laws of the Commonwealth, one being the law that refuses to allow same-sex marriages to occur in Pennsylvania, and the other which denies recognition of legal marriages performed by other states. He then refers to each plaintiff by name, and describes how the current laws affects multiple aspects of their lives, including property rights, tax laws, adoption procedures, estate planning, and even denial of information to one partner when the other has been hospitalized. Judge Jones, together with the words of the plaintiffs, describes how the marriage laws really play out in the day to day lives of same-sex couples in Pennsylvania. He shows that the effects of these laws reach further than simply calling someone a spouse.

As for the legal arguments, Judge Jones quickly dismisses any notion that the case was improperly brought to federal court. To bring a case in federal court, there must be a substantial federal question implicated at the heart of the matter. The defendants argued that this was a state law issue, and should therefore be heard by a state court. However, this Judge, along with several other courts who have spoken on this issue, reiterated that this question is of federal law as it relates to the Pennsylvania law's constitutionality under the U.S. Constitution, which is of course federal in nature. The defendants also argued that there was no harm caused to the plaintiffs by the marriage laws as they were. However, Judge Jones quickly dismissed this argument citing his discussion of the effects of the marriage ban on same-sex couples he stated earlier. He also cited the Supreme Court opinion in United States v. Windsor, in which the Court explained the many harms caused to couples by these unequal marriage laws.

Next, Judge Jones turned to the heart of the matter: the due process and equal protection claims. The Due Process Clause, found in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that all citizens have certain fundamental rights, including the right to liberty. The Courts have previously explained that included in this right to liberty is the right to marry. Judge Jones then goes on to cite several cases that have further enforced the right to marry as a fundamental right. This includes a discussion of Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court decided in 1967 that a ban on interracial marriage was unconstitutional. After the discussion of these past cases, the court ultimately concludes that the right to marry in general necessarily includes the right to marry a person of the same sex. As the court explains, the Pennsylvania laws were in conflict with this notion, and are therefore unconstitutional.

As for the equal protection argument, the court explains that there are three levels of scrutiny that can be applied to a case: strict scrutiny, intermediate or heightened scrutiny, and a rational basis test. The defendants argued for the lowest level of scrutiny, the rational basis test to be applied. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued for heightened scrutiny to be applied. The difference between the two is substantial. Under the rational basis test, for the law to stand, the government would only need to show a rational relationship to a government objective. Under heightened scrutiny, the burden of proof is a substantial relationship, which in practice is a much higher burden to prove. This court ultimately applied a heightened level of scrutiny, and decided that the law did not have a substantial relationship to a governmental objective.

In conclusion, Judge Jones reiterated his holding that the Pennsylvania law banning same-sex marriages and the law refusing to recognize legal same-sex marriages were both unconstitutional. He went on to add, "The issue we resolve today is a divisive one. Some of our citizens are made deeply uncomfortable by the notion of same-sex marriage. However, that same-sex marriage causes discomfort in some does not make its prohibition constitutional."

To read the opinion in its entirety and to find the appropriate citations, click here.

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