Legal experts doubt Minnesota Supreme Court would overturn marriage banby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
As the gay marriage debate heats up at the state Capitol this session, opponents of same-sex marriage are demanding the full Senate vote on amending the Minnesota Constitution. The constitutional amendment would limit marriage to heterosexual couples. Opponents of gay marriage say the amendment is necessary because they worry Minnesota's Supreme Court would overturn a decades-old ruling banning same-sex marriage. Several legal experts, however, say that scenario is highly doubtful.
St. Paul, Minn. — In 1971, Richard Baker and James McConnell applied for a marriage license in Hennepin County. The county denied their request. Baker and McConnell filed a lawsuit arguing that a state law prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. While the case was pending, Blue Earth County granted Baker and McConnell a marriage license and the two men held a marriage ceremony shortly thereafter. About a month later, however, a unanimous Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against the men and gay marriage.
Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice James Gilbert says it is highly unlikely justices on the state Supreme Court would overturn a precedent that rests on solid legal ground.
"Based on my review of it, they raised every issue that they could have raised and could raise now including the First Amendment, the 8th, 9th, and 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. So I think it is a very definitive statement and it's a unanimous decision too and has stood the time for 35 years," Gilbert says.
Courts in general are loathe to reverse themselves. Occasionally they will overturn a precedent, but it is rare. Courts are supposed to let previous decisions stand whenever possible. That is because the integrity of the justice system depends on stability. If the courts overturned themselves frequently, not only would they lose the public's respect, the public would also have a tough time following an ever-changing law.
William Mitchell law professor Peter Knapp says Minnesota's Supreme Court takes it earlier rulings seriously. Knapp conducts annual reviews of the Minnesota Supreme Court decisions for state judges. He says the court has been reluctant to make major changes.
"This has been a court that has had a very moderate approach to any kind of change. And when it has seen a need for change, again particularly in the civil area, it has made that change incrementally rather than instituting some new sweeping ruling," says Knapp.
Much has changed since the court decided the landmark case, Baker v. Nelson, culturally and legally. Legislatures, including Minnesota, have passed anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation. University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter teaches a course on sexual orientation and the law and is a contributor to the online magazine MarriageDebate.com. He supports the idea of gay marriage but does not support the courts forcing it on an unwilling population. Nevertheless, he says it's too early for the state to consider amending the constitution. No one has even filed a case challenging existing Minnesota law.
"It's just very premature to think that judges in the state are going to force gay marriage on this state in the way that happened say in Massachusetts," says Carpenter. "We just have a very different state judiciary."
About two years ago, the same James McConnell whose partnership with Baker gave rise to the state Supreme Court's ruling, was back in court. This time his challenge took place in federal court. McConnell argued that the Internal Revenue Service owed him nearly $800 because he did not file as an unmarried individual but rather as married filing jointly. The federal court disagreed. It said the Minnesota Supreme Court was explicit in interpreting the state's marriage statute. The court said Minnesota law does not authorize marriage between persons of the same sex and such marriages are accordingly prohibited.