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What happens if SCOTUS overturns Obergefell?

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James Obergefell — Photo by Andrew Harnik / AP
James Obergefell — Photo by Andrew Harnik / AP

What happens if the US Supreme Court follows Clarence Thomas's wishes and reverses its prior ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges?

There's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer: legal chaos. The long answer: legal chaos on an unprecedented scale.

What are the chances that the Supreme Court will actually cancel the right for same-sex couples to marry? In light of the high court's reversal of Roe v. Wade — a 50-year-old precedent — one has to say anything is possible.

In their decision in Dobbs, the majority of the court said that the right to an abortion is not enumerated in the Constitution and not supported by a long historical tradition in US law, and therefore it's an issue that must be left to state legislatures.

In his concurring opinion, Clarence Thomas noted that the same holds true for other rights: the right to same-sex marriage and the right to same-sex sexual relations, for example.

These rights are based on the legal doctrine of "substantive due process," which the high court's right-wing justices oppose.

"In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court's substantive due process precedents," Thomas wrote, naming Obergefell v. Hodges and Lawrence v. Texas specifically.

"The Supreme Court could say, 'We can't find this right in the Constitution,' which is correct, it doesn't exist as an enumerated right," Kimberly Mutcherson, co-dean and professor at Rutgers Law School, wrote in a recent law blog. "And it is absolutely not a right that is deeply rooted in the nation's history and tradition. So they can say, 'Let's throw it back to the states.'"

If the Supreme Court followed the logic of its abortion decision, it could well reverse Obergefell and leave marriage equality to the states.

In Washington state, same-sex couples would remain legally married, because marriage equality is enshrined in state law. However, there are 35 states that still carry prohibitions on same-sex marriage on the books. Those prohibitions are not currently enforceable because of the Obergefell decision, but if Obergefell goes, then they would come back into force.

Some of those prohibitions are statutory, and they could be repealed by their respective state legislatures. But 25 states — half the country — bar same-sex marriage in their state constitutions, which are much harder to change.

So right off the bat, there would be some parts of the country where same-sex couples could marry legally and some where they could not. What happens to couples who were legally married while Obergefell was in force, but live in states where those marriages would not have been legal under state law?

"I can't give you an answer to that question as we have that conversation now," said Jenny Pizer, law and policy director for Lambda Legal, who was co-counsel on the 2008 California case that secured marriage equality in that state.

"I've been practicing law now for quite a while, and we have not had this situation of rights being taken away."

One possibility is that some couple's marriages could become invalid if Obergefell is overturned, though Mutcherson notes that this "would be an outrageous move to take procedurally," given some of the legal changes that have taken place to recognize the legitimacy of these families.

It seems grossly inequitable to dissolve marriages that were legal when they were performed and where the parties entered into them in good faith and in the expectation they'd remain legal.

But it also seems grossly inequitable to prevent people who were actually in clinic waiting rooms awaiting abortions from having medical procedures they thought would be legal. Yet that's what the Supreme Court did.

There's also another question. What happens when a couple that is legally married — in Washington, let's say — moves or travels to a state where same-sex marriages are banned?

The "full faith and credit" clause of the US Constitution requires states to recognize legal procedures carried out by other states, so it would seem that their marriages would have to be recognized wherever they travel.

But what if Lawrence was overturned as well as Obergefell? Could our hypothetical couple remain legally married in a state that prohibited same-sex marriage but be legally barred from having sex?

All these questions could — and probably will — give rise to litigation in both federal and state courts in the event the Supreme Court reverses Obergefell, so the net effect of such a ruling would be legal uncertainty on a nationwide scale.