In King v. Burwell, decided last Thursday, the Supreme Court has once again (no doubt inadvertently) given us a lesson in the philosophy of language. The dispute in the case is over the meaning of the phrase "exchange established by the state." Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, argues that the phrase can and should be read to include an exchange established by the federal government. He explains that "exchange established by the state" is ambiguous because when read in context (as he proceeds to do) it means something different than it does when read in isolation. Justice Scalia retorts that by the logic of such a reading, "everything is ambiguous." That's both right and not right.
The SCOTUS ruling to legalize same-sex marriage is a victory for human rights. The decision follows in the footsteps of its 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia that outlawed states' bans on interracial marriage, an earlier victory for marriage equality. But there is a huge difference in the two rulings.
Such an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts would not only strengthen the decision but put into the Supreme Court's toolbox the importance of viewing discrimination against someone on the basis of her sexual orientation as simple sex discrimination. This would help bring "heightened scrutiny" into consideration in future gay-rights cases.
There are consequences to waiting. Couples are denied their rights, which has ramifications from child custody to driver licenses to death certificates. Look at what the status quo means: Gay couples separated in hospitals. Losing their life savings when one passes away. Having a marriage license revoked when they cross state lines.
Sen. Cruz's "State Marriage Defense Act" is unlikely to become law anytime soon. Yet it is a good example of the kind of chaotic reaction the U.S. Supreme Court eventually could unleash if it upheld anti-gay state marriage laws in the case it will hear later this term. Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts, are you listening?