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Proposition 8 Case Has High Political Stakes For Both Parties


We'll learn what the court decides to do about DOMA and California's Proposition 8 sometime this summer. Its options vary widely. But no matter what the result, there will be political implications.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us to walk through some of them.

And, Mara, first, let's talk briefly about this really sea change in public opinion now in favor of same-sex marriage. Could the court reverse that tide in any way?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: No, the court cannot reverse that tide. This is a permanent shift in public opinion. And that's why I think the political implications are pretty similar no matter how the court rules. Democrats are on the side of changing public opinion, and Republicans have already signaled they want to change in tone when they confront gay rights issues. They're not going to be pushing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage anymore. They want to send a message of inclusion.

One hundred prominent Republicans even signed an amicus brief to the court saying that they should make gay marriage legal. You have Rob Portman, very prominent Ohio Republican senator, coming out in favor of gay marriage.

So I think no matter what the court does, Republicans are going to have to balance this new effort to change their tone about this with their base, which is against gay marriage for the most part, and which, only a few years ago, was being motivated to turn out at the polls by anti-gay marriage ballot measures.

CORNISH: Now, this is often described as a conservative court, and you've talked about what this means for Republicans. I mean, does it complicate things politically for Democrats as well?

LIASSON: Well, it depends on what the court does. I think a sweeping pro-gay marriage ruling could have a backlash. And that would make things potentially more complicated for the Republicans because they'd like to stop talking about this issue altogether, at least on the national level. And they'd face probably pressure from their base to get marriage amendments on the ballot in states.

But it also might not be a good thing for Democrats. There are some Democrats who think that there are pitfalls in big sweeping rulings on social issues, divisive social issues, from the Supreme Court. It's better, they think, that voters adjudicate big social issues, not the courts. You get a longer lasting consensus if you have legislators or actual people voting on these issues.

And, you know, Prop 8 passed five years ago. I think it would be pretty fair to predict that California voters, if they went to the polls today, would approve a ballot referendum overturning it and making gay marriage legal in California.

CORNISH: Now, of course, you've been covering politics for a long time. I mean, can you remember a time when the Supreme Court took up a case or cases that really had these political stakes?

LIASSON: Well, Bush v. Gore had high political stakes and so did the health care law. But I think the case that's the most parallel to this one is the 1973 Roe versus Wade abortion ruling. And we know that at least one sitting justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has said that was the right decision done in the wrong way. In other words, she thought the Roe v. Wade decision was too sweeping.

It came before voters and legislatures in states have had a chance to sort out abortion, which was a very divisive social issue. And she is clearly weary of doing the same thing with gay marriage. And based on some of the questions from the justices today, it sounds like she's not alone.

CORNISH: And, of course, this isn't the only case that the court will decide this summer that will, you know, thrust them basically in the middle of a heated political debate. I mean, tell us a bit about the others.

LIASSON: Well, you're going to get the Voting Rights Act cases, affirmative action cases and voter ID laws. All of these cases are racially charged and they're going to be before the court this year, so I think it will be a very hot summer at the Supreme Court.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: One final note on today's Supreme Court arguments: We thought we'd play a bit of sound from the lawyers themselves presenting their cases. First, Charles Cooper representing backers of Proposition 8.

CHARLES COOPER: The concern is that redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes and it will refocus the purpose of marriage and the definition of marriage away from the raising of children and to the emotional needs and desires of adults.

CORNISH: And here's Theodore Olson, who began by telling the justices what he thinks Prop. 8 does.

THEODORE OLSON: It walls off gays and lesbians from marriage, the most important relation in life, according to this court, thus stigmatizing a class of Californians based upon their status and labeling their most cherished relationships as second-rate, different, unequal and not OK.

CORNISH: Lawyers Theodore Olson and Charles Cooper before the Supreme Court today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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