Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

Gay marriage ruling is latest in major cases decided by Supreme Court

Demonstrators stood in front of the Supreme Court in April.
Jose Luis Magana/AP File
Demonstrators stood in front of the Supreme Court in April.

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex marriage is a right, extending marriage to same-sex couples in all 50 states.

The decision came a day after the court announced rulings in two other major cases, upholding health care subsidies and housing discrimination law. A ruling on lethal injection is still pending.

Why so many decisions at once? Because it’s the end of term, and the justices — like so many of us — tend to put off the toughest decisions until the last minute.


The announcements will have immediate and profound repercussions for people all across the country. Here are some of the big cases, key issues, and court decisions.

Same-sex marriage

Upheld 5-4. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were in the majority. Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented.

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Recent years have seen a huge expansion in same-sex marriageincluding to Guam. At the beginning of 2014, roughly a third of Americans lived in states that permitted same-sex marriage. With the Supreme Court’s ruling, that number is 100 percent.

The main force driving this expansion of marriage rights has been the courts, not the voters. A string of 2014 rulings forced nearly 20 states to allow same-sex marriage. But when the Sixth Circuit disagreed — arguing that states could in fact have the right to ban same-sex marriage — the Supreme Court decided to intervene.

In their ruling, the justices made same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the United States, completing the transformation that began in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage.


Upheld 6-3. Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan were in the majority. Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissented.

Twice now, the Supreme Court has held the fate of Obamacare in its hands. In 2013, the justices determined that the law itself was constitutional — thanks to an unexpected endorsement by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts.


This time around, the legal question was narrower, but the stakes were still quite high.

By design, Obamacare gave each state a choice about whether to create its own health care marketplace — also called an exchange — or whether to let the federal government do it. Trouble is, there’s an ambiguous section of the law which seems to say that if you let the feds build your exchange, then the people in your state don’t get any subsidies. And without subsidies, paying for insurance becomes vastly more expensive. If the judges had rejected the nationwide tax subsidies, millions of American might have suddenly found themselves unable to afford health insurance.

Prior to the lawsuit, virtually no one interpreted Obamacare this way. Not the staffers who worked on it, not the journalists who reported on it, not the modelers who tried to estimate its effects, and not even the states who were deciding whether to set up their own exchanges. They all assumed that the subsidies would be universally available. It turns out, a majority of justices held the same view.

Lethal injection

Cruel and unusual punishment is expressly forbidden by the Bill of Rights. But it’s not always easy to tell what kinds of punishments are acceptable, and which are actually cruel.

At issue in this case is one of the drugs used for lethal injections. It’s supposed to render a person unconscious, so that other drugs can be used to stop inmate’s heart.


However, this particular drug, called midazolam, wasn’t really designed to do that, and its reputation hasn’t been helped by several recent executions gone awry. Oklahoma adopted midazolam for its executions when it became too difficult to obtain other, more reliable drugs (partly because European drug companies didn’t want their drugs used for lethal injections).

During oral arguments, some justices seemed frustrated by the circular nature of the dispute, which they framed in these terms: Anti-death penalty groups make it harder to get reliable drugs to safely kill inmates, then they complain that states are using less-trustworthy alternatives. But it’s those same anti-death penalty advocates who’ve forced the states to make do with those alternatives.

Ultimately, though, these concerns can’t eliminate the more basic question: Is the use of midazolam cruel or unusual?

Disparate impact

Upheld 5-4. Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan were in the majority. Justices Thomas, Alito, Roberts, and Scalia dissented.

Landlords aren’t allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. That much is clear from the law. But what if the discrimination is less overt? Imagine a landlord who says he’ll only accept tenants from the immediate neighborhood — maybe because he wants to support the local community.

That may not seem discriminatory, but what if the neighborhood is overwhelmingly white? Doesn’t that limit the ability of black families to rent apartments? In that sense, it has what’s called a “disparate impact,” meaning it disproportionately affects people of a certain race or sex, or those with a disability.

For years “disparate impact” cases have been used to contest discriminatory housing policies. But the Supreme Court heard an argument this session about whether this approach was actually too broad, and whether disparate impact cases were really authorized under the law.

Thursday, the judges announced their ruling, saying that disparate impact was indeed an acceptable standard under current law. If the justices had not upheld disparate impact cases, it would have created a much higher hurdle for legal challenges and made it harder for minority groups to prove that they were being treated unfairly.

Who’s going to win?

Speculating about Supreme Court decisions is a mug’s game. The court is just too closely divided, and the whims of swing justices too hard to predict.

In any event, we won’t have to wait long. All of these decisions will be announced in the next few weeks, giving rise to big headlines, copious analysis, and broad real-world implications.

The rulings may be coming soon, in other words, but the results will echo through the country for years to come.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz