Constitution Day 2014: Imagining Life without Courts to Safeguard our Constitutional Rights

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September 17, 2014

Today, the U.S. Constitution turns 227 years old! We have a great deal to celebrate, but quite a bit of work remaining if we hope to extend the Constitution’s guarantee of liberty and equality to all.

A large part of our job at Lambda Legal involves making the case for equality in the nation’s courts.

So, in addition to honoring our nation’s governing document on Constitution Day, we wanted to take time to celebrate some of the court rulings that have extend the Constitution’s guarantee of liberty and equality to improve the lives of all people.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously struck down discriminatory marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin — just two weeks after attorneys from Lambda Legal argued on behalf of five Indiana plaintiff couples in the case Baskin v. Bogan.  In the opinion, Judge Richard Posner held that the marriage bans violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.  In response to the State’s argument that the ban was the product of the democratic process, Posner wrote:

Minorities trampled on by the democratic process have recourse to the courts; the recourse is called constitutional law.

The concept of judicial review — that “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is” — was defined by the Supreme Court case of Marbury v Madison that upheld the power of federal courts to void acts of Congress that conflict with the Constitution.

But imagine what life would be like without the courts there to safeguard our constitutional rights?

Here are some Constitution Day cartoons that depict an alternate reality about what life in this country might be had the courts not upheld the U.S. Constitution:

Romer v Evans (1996): In a victory won by Lambda Legal, the ACLU and a group of Colorado attorneys, the Supreme Court struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2, which prohibited state laws protecting gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from discrimination. At the time it was decided, this landmark ruling was the single most positive Supreme Court decision in the history of the gay rights movement and laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v Windsor.

Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972): The Supreme Court ruled that a denial of contraceptives would “materially impair the ability of single persons” to exercise their rights. The Court wrote: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from the unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

Lawrence v. Texas (2003): In this case, brought by Lambda Legal, the Supreme Court ruled that laws criminalizing sex between consenting adults violated individual liberty. The ruling overturned all remaining state sodomy laws and the decision’s sweeping language marked a new era of legal respect for the LGBT community.

Of course, not all rulings are worth celebrating. In fact, the day before the ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder.  And in this year’s Hobby Lobby decision, the Court held that some corporations essentially may use the religious beliefs of the owners as a justification—as our Law and Policy Project National Director, Jenny Pizer, put it-—  “to ‘line-item veto’ birth control coverage out of their employees’ health plans.” Decisions like these remind of us of the hard work that lies ahead.

For more than 40 years, Lambda Legal has relied on the Constitution to bring the principles of liberty and equality to LGBT people and those with HIV around the country. But there is still more to do.

As we gear up for a possible decision on the freedom to marry from the Supreme Court, Lambda Legal will need your support to help us make the case for equality. Together, let’s make next year’s Constitution Day celebration one for the history books.

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