The Iowa Supreme Court decision declaring the state’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional is undeniably a victory. It’s a victory for the LGBT community, a victory for equality and a reminder of the vitally important role judges and the courts play in upholding constitutional principles and defending freedoms.
Of course, this is just the sort of decision that ultra-conservatives like to use to gin up their base. But the charges of judicial activism and liberal judges legislating from the bench that they love to trot out—really just code for “decision we don’t like”—are particularly absurd in this instance. This was a unanimous decision issued by an ideologically diverse court. The Iowa Court spoke with one voice, fulfilling its most important duty: upholding the state constitution. The role of the judiciary is to review and interpret the laws to determine whether or not they fall within constitutional limitations. The role of the courts is not to take a backseat to the legislature or executive mansion when they are running roughshod over a constitution--the supreme law of the land. Or, to put it in the words of the Iowa Supreme Court itself:
These Iowans, believing that the law is inconsistent with certain constitutional mandates, exercised their constitutional right to petition the courts for redress of their grievance. This court, consistent with its role to interpret the law and resolve disputes, now has the responsibility to determine if the law enacted by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch violates the Iowa Constitution.
The court meticulously analyzed the marriage ban—faithfully applying the Iowa Constitution and many state statutes—and determined that it was fundamentally inconsistent with the Iowa Constitution’s promise that “the general assembly shall not grant to any citizen or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens (Iowa Const. art. I, § 6).”
Iowa’s ruling is in many ways an echo of what is arguably the greatest decision in modern Supreme Court history: Brown v. Board of Education, and not just because Brown was another unanimous decision handed down by an ideologically diverse court. Brown proved that the courts are a place for Americans to stand up for their freedoms. Brown showed us that sometimes the courts need to be the vanguard of upholding constitutional values when societal recognition of basic freedoms and equality lags behind. Once again, Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady says it beautifully:
Our responsibility, however, is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time. The framers of the Iowa Constitution knew, as did the drafters of the United States Constitution, that “times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress,” and as our constitution “endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom” and equality.
The justices of the Iowa Supreme Court took seriously their obligation to uphold the state constitution and provide equal justice for all. As that court had done many times in the past—outlawing slavery, admitting women to the practice of law, striking down racial segregation—the judges of the Iowa Supreme Court once again “approached a fork in the road toward fulfillment of our constitution’s ideals and reaffirmed the ‘absolute equality of all’ persons before the law as ‘the very foundation principle of our government.’”