Making It Up: Lessons for Equal Protection Doctrine from the Use and Abuse of Hypothesized Purposes in the Marriage Equality Litigation

Steve Sanders

Volume 68, Issue 3, 657-710

To survive rational basis scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause, a law must serve a governmental purpose which is at least legitimate. It is well established that legitimate purposes can sometimes be found through speculation and conjecturethat is, they may be hypothesizedin order to avoid the difficulties of identifying actual purpose or the specter of courts second-guessing legislative judgments. But hypothesized purposes can be abused, and such abuse was rampant in the states’ defenses of their bans on same-sex marriage, bans which were ultimately invalidated in Obergefell v. Hodges.

This Article draws on the federal marriage litigation as a lens for thinking critically about hypothesized purposes. It suggests several lessons about hypothesized purposes that should guide courts in the future. In particular, I discuss (1) the differences between hypothesized purposes, which are grounded in facts and concerns that were conceivably before a legislature, and post-hoc rationalizations, which I define as pretexts that have been manufactured to satisfy rational basis scrutiny but which could not plausibly have been a legislative purpose; (2) how courts should approach hypothesized purposes when there is evidence that a law was impelled by animus; and (3) why hypothesized purposes are inappropriate and should receive skeptical scrutiny when they are offered in support of measures enacted through direct democracy.

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