Everyone believes that the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same sex marriage and all of the rights and benefits associated with it. But not everyone is so sure that’s the case.
In September 2015, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks filed a lawsuit challenging the City of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner over the city ordinance that provides full spousal benefits to same sex partners of city employees. Their lawsuit is not challenging whether or not same sex marriage is legal, but whether or not same sex spouses also have the fundamental right to equal benefits.
The lawsuit had little success in the lower Texas courts. The case was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, who refused to the hear the case in September 2016 by an overwhelming vote of 8-1.
The lone justice who voted to hear the case, Justice John Devine, stated in his dissention that although marriage is a fundamental right, spousal benefits are not a fundamental right. He said that the two issues are separate from each other.
However, for reasons not sure, the Texas Supreme Court has just agreed to reconsider the case of whether the same sex spouses of city employees are entitled to the same benefits as traditional married spouses are.
By hearing this case, the Texas Supreme Court is faced with two important issues.
One issue has to do with whether or not same sex spouses are rightfully due the same benefits as other legally married spouses. That may have been previously decided by the 1996 Supreme Court case of Romer v. Evans, where the high court ruled it was not legal to discriminate against gay people when it comes to legal protection under the law.
The arguments in support of the Houston ordinance, claims that it is unconstitutional to grant rights to spouses of straight couples but deny those rights to same sex spouses. Based solely on the Romer v. Evans, they may have a sound legal argument.
However, a decision on this issue may rest upon the second issue facing the Texas Supreme Court. This question has to do with whether or not the Texas Supreme Court decides to place their authority over that of the US Supreme Court. In a brief filed by state legislators and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, they stated:
“This Court has the opportunity to diminish federal tyranny and reestablish Texas Sovereignty. The people have already spoken on the issue through the Texas legislature.”
In other words, will the Texas Supreme Court turn to the 10th Amendment and exert their state’s rights over that of the US Supreme Court. The 10th Amendment states:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The plaintiffs in this case also argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Obergefell case should read ‘narrowly’ since the right the court referred to cannot be found in the US Constitution.
So, does a state supreme court have the right to overrule the US Supreme Court? States’ rights advocates would like to believe so.