Silence of the Liberals: When Supreme Court Justices Fail to Speak Up for LGBT Rights

David S. Cohen *

In 1985, Justice Brennan did something that had never been done before and has, surprisingly, never been done again—penned a separate opinion from the Court’s left vigorously arguing for the protection of gay rights under the Constitution. Since then, even though the Court has repeatedly protected gay rights, none of the Court’s liberal Justices have said a word on the topic. Rather, the liberal Justices have ceded the territory on the issue of the Constitution and gay rights almost entirely to Justice Kennedy’s notoriously flowery but somewhat vacuous statements about the issue, as well as the pointed and often homophobic critiques of the Court’s more conservative Justices.

This liberal silence has been costly. Court developments around gay rights have been one of many factors contributing to the drastic change in this country with respect to accepting gay people and treating them more equally. Concurring opinions could have been a part of this judicial influence, both in society and in lower court doctrine, but the liberal Justices have opted to remain silent. By doing so, they have lost an opportunity to use separate opinions to influence the trajectory of the law on gay and trans rights, solidify the societal and legal gains that may be threatened by Justice Kennedy’s departure from the Court, clarify Justice Kennedy’s vague analysis, and counter the stereotypes and bigotry of the dissenting opinions.

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*   Professor of Law, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Thank you to Professor Leonore Carpenter for her valuable feedback on this article, as well as to Sarah Varney and Alice Thornewill for excellent research assistance.

 

 

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