By Eric Rader
While President Obama’s recent statement of support for same-sex marriage was welcome news, the legal and political reality is that he cannot change laws alone. Presidents function within a system of checks and balances and federalism where power is shared among different branches of government and the states. The framers of the Constitution wanted governmental power to be fragmented and limited so that individual rights would be protected. Unfortunately, the framers’ intentions have not always been realized. In their own time, slavery was allowed in much of the country, and the Constitution itself required that slaves be counted as 3/5ths of a full person. It would take a bloody civil war to end the practice of human slavery, and another 100 years of struggle for African Americans and women to gain some measure of equality under the law in this country.
While the president cannot unilaterally legalize gay marriage, or do much else on his own with regard to LGBT equality, he can use his executive authority to help advance LGBT rights. Already, President Obama has undertaken a number of important actions to advance equal marriage rights. In early 2011, the Obama Administration stopped defending the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) against federal legal challenges. Several courts have recently ruled against DOMA. In a related development, a federal appeals court declined earlier this month to reverse its decision to strike down California’s anti-gay marriage amendment. It is very likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will at some point review one or both of these decisions, possibly as early as next year.
The major political focus this year is on the presidential election. President Obama enjoys enormous support from the LGBT community because of the many positive things he’s done for us. However, even if the president is reelected, he can’t do much to advance LGBT rights if he is surrounded by members of Congress who don’t agree with him. The U.S. House of Representatives is currently controlled by the Republican Party, and the House majority has been openly hostile to both LGBT equality and women’s rights. Our pro-equality president and the Democratic Senate have been able to block the worst proposals of the right-wing House, but the political dynamics might change dramatically in November, depending on the election results.
Judiciary at stake
This year’s congressional elections will probably have a big impact on the makeup of the federal judiciary for many years to come. The U.S. Senate has responsibility for confirming the president’s judicial appointments to all federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Even though the Democrats are currently in the majority in the Senate, the president has had a very difficult time getting Senate confirmation for many of his judicial nominees because Republicans have engaged in frequent filibusters. Since President Obama has been in office, Republicans have used this legislative tool recklessly in their declared effort to make Obama a one-term president.
Voters should consider the importance of the federal judiciary when they go to the polls this November. Whoever is elected president this year will likely get to appoint a number of federal judges, and possibly a couple of Supreme Court justices. It is quite probable that one or more gay rights cases will reach the High Court next year. Of course, it’s important to have a president in office that will appoint qualified judges who recognize discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity is a violation of the U.S. Constitution. We also need a Senate that will work to confirm qualified judges who will look out for the rights of all people. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) is on the ballot here this fall and has been a strong supporter of our community over the years. We need to help her get reelected.
The cause of LGBT equality will continue to be fought in many different venues, from the states, to the courts, to Congress, to the White House. Checks and balances can be healthy for democracy, but only if the people in positions of responsibility are not reckless in their use of power. This year, let’s elect people at all levels of government who understand that the rights of minorities need to be protected, just as our Founders envisioned.
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