WASHINGTON -- The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not protect against discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, according to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
In a newly published interview in the legal magazine California Lawyer, Scalia said that while the Constitution does not disallow the passage of legislation outlawing such discrimination, it doesn't itself outlaw that behavior:
In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don't think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we've gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?
Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. ... But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that's fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don't need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don't like the death penalty anymore, that's fine. You want a right to abortion? There's nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn't mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it's a good idea and pass a law. That's what democracy is all about. It's not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society.
For the record, the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause states: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Marcia Greenberger, founder and co-president of the National Women's Law Center, called the justice's comments "shocking" and said he was essentially saying that if the government sanctions discrimination against women, the judiciary offers no recourse.
"In these comments, Justice Scalia says if Congress wants to protect laws that prohibit sex discrimination, that's up to them," she said. "But what if they want to pass laws that discriminate? Then he says that there's nothing the court will do to protect women from government-sanctioned discrimination against them. And that's a pretty shocking position to take in 2011. It's especially shocking in light of the decades of precedents and the numbers of justices who have agreed that there is protection in the 14th Amendment against sex discrimination, and struck down many, many laws in many, many areas on the basis of that protection."
Greenberger added that under Scalia's doctrine, women could be legally barred from juries, paid less by the government, receive fewer benefits in the armed forces, and be excluded from state-run schools -- all things that have happened in the past, before their rights to equal protection were enforced.
"In 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that they were protected, in an opinion by the conservative then Chief Justice Warren Burger," Adam Cohen wrote in Time in September. "It is no small thing to talk about writing women out of equal protection -- or Jews, or Latinos or other groups who would lose their protection by the same logic. It is nice to think that legislatures would protect these minorities from oppression by the majority, but we have a very different country when the Constitution guarantees that it is so."
In 1996, Scalia cast the sole vote in favor of allowing the Virginia Military Institute to continue denying women admission.
UPDATE: Observers have pointed out that Scalia and his interviewer, UC Hastings law professor Calvin Massey, are wrong when they say that no one ever considered the 14th amendment applying equal protection for women. In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and other women's rights advocates publicly pushed to include explicit mentions of women's rights in the 14th and 15th amendments. (The National Woman Suffrage Association was born out of Stanton and Anthony's opposition to the shape of the 14th amendment.) Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens introduced a petition for universal suffrage in 1866.
Their version, however, was defeated, and as Linda Gordon, NYU professor of history, told The Huffington Post, "the women who had led that felt they had been absolutely sold out by the post-Lincoln Republican Party because the 14th and 15th amendments are the first times that this notion of black people as a separate category was added" to the Constitution.
Legal scholar Jack Balkin writes that while the 14th amendment doesn't end up explicitly mentioning sex, that doesn't mean it doesn't grant women equal protection:
First, The central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to guarantee equal citizenship and equality before the law for all citizens and for all persons. It does not simply ban discrimination based on race. The fact that the word race is not mentioned in the text (as it is in the fifteenth amendment) was quite deliberate.
Scalia argues that the fourteenth amendment was not intended to prevent sex discrimination. That's not entirely true. The supporters of the fourteenth amendment did not think it would disturb the common law rules of coverture: under these rules women lost most of their common law rights upon marriage under the fiction that their legal identities were merged with their husbands. But these rules did not apply to single women. So in fact, the fourteenth amendment was intended to prohibit some forms of sex discrimination-- discrimination in basic civil rights against single women.
Moreover, the Constitution was subsequently amended. After the nineteenth amendment, the common law coverture rules made little sense. If married women had the right to vote, why did they not have the right to contract or own property in their own names? If we read the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of civil equality in light of the Nineteenth Amendment, the guarantee of sex equality should apply to both single and married women. The conservative court during the Lochner era thought as much in a case called Adkins v. Children's Hospital, decided immediately after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.