Tyranny of the majority

Supreme Court makes the Prop. 8 debate about equal protection and separation of powers


When the California Supreme Court agreed last week to decide the legality of Proposition 8 — which a slim majority of Californians passed Nov. 4, taking from same-sex couples the marriage rights that the court had established in May — the debate shifted to a concept far older than that of gay rights.

Essentially, it will decide whether this is a case of the "tyranny of the majority," a phrase Alexis de Tocqueville coined in his classic 1835 book Democracy in America, drawing on a concept from the ancient Greeks that was the philosophical underpinning of the US Bill of Rights and the central paradigm of constitutional democracy.

The founding principle is that basic rights — such as the freedoms of speech, religion, and association — are not subject to majority approval and can't be taken away by a simple popular vote. So the question now before the judges is whether the right to marry, which the court ruled had been unconstitutionally withheld from same-sex couples, is among those core rights.

"The whole notion of equal protection is to protect minority interests from the periodic discriminatory impulse of the majority," Robert Rubin, legal director for the Bay Area chapter of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, told the Guardian. "And [upholding Prop. 8] would turn that on its head."


Even before the votes were counted election night, the San Francisco City Attorney's Office and its counterparts in Santa Clara County and the city of Los Angeles were developing their challenge to the legality of Prop. 8, which they filed Nov. 5.

Both Prop. 8 proponents and the California Attorney General's Office agreed that the high court should immediately take the case rather than let it rattle around the lower courts for months or years. "Review by this Court is necessary to ensure uniformity of decision, finality and certainty for the citizens of California," Attorney General Jerry Brown wrote to the court.

Brown had previously ruled that the roughly 18,000 marriages performed since May were legal and that Prop. 8 is not retroactive, something proponents of the measure dispute and which the Supreme Court also has agreed to decide in this case. But two of the three "issues to be briefed and argued," as the high court ruled Nov. 19, were more fundamental: "1) Is Proposition 8 invalid because it constitutes a revision of, rather than an amendment to, the California Constitution? (see Cal. Const., art. XVIII, 1-4) 2) Does Proposition 8 violate the separation of powers doctrine under the California Constitution?"

Narrowly framed, the first question asks whether the process of banning same-sex marriage in the constitution should have gone through the more cumbersome revision process, which involves winning a two-thirds vote in the California Legislature before submitting the measure to voters. And the second concerns whether the legislative branch of government (in this case, through a direct vote of the people) can legally override this decision by the judicial branch.

But more broadly framed, both questions go to the same basic issue: can a simple majority of voters take away rights from a protected minority group, one the judicial branch has already ruled is entitled to the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples? The implications of that answer are so profound that City Attorney Dennis Herrera, in a City Hall press conference after the court announced its decision, cast the matter as no less than a "constitutional crisis."

"The cases before the Supreme Court today are no simple rematch. To be candid, the principles implicated here are of far greater consequence than marriage alone," Herrera said. "In short, this case has gone beyond the simple issue of marriage equality.