Thursday, March 17, 2011 – Nancy Polikoff –
Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage
It’s always risky to predict the outcome of a case based on oral argument. Nonetheless, I’ll predict that the Arkansas Supreme Court will affirm the decision of a trial judge in Cole v. Arkansas Dept. of Human Services that the state’s ban on adoption and fostering by anyone living with a nonmarital partner violates the state’s constitution. The ban was enacted by voters in 2008. You can watch the argument on the court’s website here. Although a lawyer for the state did argue briefly, the lawyer who primarily argued for upholding the ban represented the intervenors, the Family Council Action Committee, the Arkansas group behind placing the matter on the ballot in 2008. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU, which has once again done a top notch job.
Before the US Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that its criminal prohibition on private consensual sex in the home violated the state’s constitution. The importance of that case, Jegley v. Picado, played a large role in today’s hearing. The trial court found the ban a violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights as articulated in Jegley. The appellants disagree, arguing that the ban is nothing like the intrusion of criminalizing behavior in the home. The justices did not appear to buy it. They repeatedly returned to the fundamental right articulated in Jegley and expressed skepticism that the ban was anything but a direct and substantial burden on the exercise of that right.
If the ban violates the fundamental right of the plaintiffs then it cannot stand unless it is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest. But if there is no fundamental right at stake, then the ban survives as long as it has a “rational basis.” The intervenors and the state argued that the rational basis test allows the generalization that, as a group, the homes of “cohabiting” couples are less stable and more volatile than other homes, and that therefore an individual review of each applicant in such a situation is not required, even though some of those homes would be suitable.
When one of the justices asked the lawyer for the intervenors if he conceded he would lose if the court applied “heightened scrutiny,” he said no. He said the “life” of the child was at stake (that’s how he characterized the state’s interest on several occasions) and that the state couldn’t be required to place children in the “riskiest” and “poorest performing” home environments.
In what was perhaps the most astonishing part of the argument by the appellants, both lawyers asserted that the state’s screening process is not good enough to weed out unsuitable applicants. They called the process “imperfect” and “not foolproof” and said that mistakes are made. When one of the justices responded that the lawyer for the agency was acknowledging his system to be a failure, the lawyer said the Department of Human Services was doing the best it could but that people lie and “slip through” their process. He later backpedaled and said he had misspoken, but in the process he asserted the problem was everywhere and that caseworkers are overworked and the agency does not have sufficient funding.
So this is what it’s come to. There is no response to the assertion of the plaintiffs, echoed by judges on the court, that no one is allowed to foster or adopt a child without first going through an agency or judicial approval process. So apparently to justify excluding an entire category of applicants from the opportunity to show that a placement in their home is in the best interest of a child, the government lawyer must argue that his agency is not capable of doing its job properly. I find it impossible to imagine that the Arkansas Supreme Court will base its decision on such reasoning.
The lawyers for the plaintiffs reiterated the individual process each applicant goes through. He said that any studies about groups of children are irrelevant because of that, but he did further argue that whatever correlation there may be between “cohabitation” and child outcome does not demonstrate that the cohabitation causes the problems. He also told that court that it could not rule against the gay and lesbian plaintiffs without overruling the court’s decision in Howard. In that case a unanimous court struck down an administrative regulation preventing a gay person or anyone living with a gay person from being licensed as a foster parent. The authors of both the majority and concurring opinions in Howard remain on the bench.
One of the court’s newest justices, Courtney Hudson Henry, asked the lawyer for the intervenors the last question of the argument. She noted that a gay person living alone with multiple sexual partners is eligible to adopt, as long as that person doesn’t live with a partner. (I wish she has left the qualifier “gay” off her statement, as it is true for a heterosexual with multiple partners as well). The response she received was that the ban is concerned with the dynamics and volatility of cohabiting relationships and break ups and there are a variety of reasons an individual might be denied the ability to adopt or be a foster parent.
And so it has come to this. The same state that cannot be trusted be weed out cohabiting couples whose homes are not good for children can be trusted to weed out single applicants who sleep around (without having police go snooping in their homes, which everyone agrees Jegley does not allow). Of course, that’s not the point. In fact, the point of the ban has nothing to do with children and everything to do with stigmatizing both same-sex and unmarried different-sex relationships. I don’t think the Arkansas Supreme Court is buying it.