The U.S. Supreme Court heard two-and-a-half hours of arguments on Tuesday on whether it should grant same-sex couples the right to marry. The justices tangled with lawyers over states’ rights and the history of marriage and same-sex relationships.
Below are highlights from what the justices and the lawyers said during arguments.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.: “My question is, you’re not seeking to join the institution, you’re seeking to change what the institution is. The fundamental core of the institution is the opposite-sex relationship and you want to introduce into it a same-sex relationship.”
“If you prevail here, there will be no more debate. I mean, closing the debate can close minds and it will have a consequence on how this new institution is accepted. People feel very differently about something if they have a chance to vote on it than if it’s imposed on them by the courts.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy: “But still, 10 years is, I don’t even know how to count the decimals when we talk about millennia. This definition has been with us for millennia. And it’s very difficult for the court to say, oh, well, we know better.”
Justice Antonin Scalia: “The issue, of course, is not whether there should be same-sex marriage, but who should decide the point.”
“I’m concerned about the wisdom of this court imposing through the Constitution a requirement of action which is unpalatable to many of our citizens for religious reasons. They are not likely to change their view about what marriage consists of.”
Justice Stephen Breyer: “Suddenly you want nine people outside the ballot box to require states that don’t want to do it to change what you’ve heard is—change what marriage is to include gay people. Why cannot those states at least wait and see whether in fact doing so in the other states is or is not harmful to marriage?”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “But you wouldn’t be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him. There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t fit into what marriage was once.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “I suspect even with us giving gays rights to marry that there’s some gay people who will choose not to. Just as there’s some heterosexual couples who choose not to marry. So we’re not taking anybody’s liberty away.”
Mary Bonauto, representing same-sex couples: “If a legal commitment, responsibility and protection that is marriage is off limits to gay people as a class, the stain of unworthiness that follows on individuals and families contravenes the basic constitutional commitment to equal dignity.”
“Here we have a whole class of people who are denied the equal right to be able to join in this very extensive government institution that provides protection for families.”
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr.: “Gay and lesbian people are equal. They deserve equal protection of the laws, and they deserve it now.”
Michigan special attorney general John Bursch, representing states defending same-sex marriage bans: “This case isn’t about how to define marriage. It’s about who gets to decide that question. Is it the people acting through the democratic process, or is it the federal courts? And we’re asking you to affirm every individual’s fundamental liberty interest in deciding the meaning of marriage.”
“The marriage institution did not develop to deny dignity or to give second class status to anyone. It developed to serve purposes that, by their nature, arise from biology.”