What should the US Supreme Court do when facing a contested moral issue? In today's rulings in two same-sex marriage cases, the court decided to add its voice to the public discussion, rather than either remain silent or offer a definitive ruling that might end additional democratic development. The court thus demonstrated its power to participate in ongoing public discourse, without drowning out further debate.
Specifically, the court today acknowledged that states have the right to define marriage, and struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits to gay couples legally married under state law.
In another case, it found that proponents of California's Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, had no legal right to contest a lower court's overturning of Proposition 8.
The decisions - both narrow 5-4 rulings - benefit gay marriage without ruling explicitly on its constitutionality.
In addressing controversial social matters, this court apparently fears getting ahead of social change, but neither does it wish to be left behind.
That has not always been the case. Roe v. Wade, the controversial 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion, is often cited as the court's anticipating a moral consensus that failed to emerge. In Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986, by contrast, the court rejected a right to same-sex intimacy in language that in retrospect appears harsh and intrusive. The court was burdened by Bowers for 17 years, until its overruling in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. The Roe controversy continues to this day.
When dealing with highly charged social issues, one tactic at the court's disposal is simply to avoid an issue and await further legislative activity. Inaction, however, also has its price. A court that is seen to ignore injustice may lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
Today's decisions in the same-sex marriage cases demonstrate that the court has a vital additional option.
A majority of justices can indicate endorsement of a particular constitutional value, without mandating its enforcement throughout the nation. The justices can thus avoid the twin perils of remaining silent in the face of injustice or commanding immediate acceptance of their constitutional vision. They can shape the tide of public opinion, even as they avoid getting too far behind or ahead of it.
That's what the court did today. In the California case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, which directly raised the constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the court did remain silent, finding procedural grounds on which to dismiss the appeal.
But in United States v. Windsor, the DOMA case, the majority spoke in …