1996: Romer v. Evans

Almost 20 years ago, Kennedy wrote the Court's 6-3 decision striking down an amendment to the Colorado constitution that singled out gay people for unequal treatment. The amendment prohibited any arm of the state government—including the legislature and the Courts—from taking any action to protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Kennedy's opinion doesn't have the same rhetorical flourishes he would adopt later, but the outcome was consistent: Colorado's amendment "classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else," Kennedy wrote. The Court struck down the amendment as a violation of the Equal Protection clause.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on Friday took the rein on gay-rights cases decades ago, and has been building toward Friday's historic ruling ever since.

The Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide is pure Kennedy, full of high-minded rhetoric about the dignity of marriage, individual liberty, and the fundamental principles of equality. It casts aside warnings to move slowly or less forcefully and embraces the broadest legal arguments for recognizing same-sex marriage.

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family," Kennedy wrote. "In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were."

Kennedy, who was appointed to the high court by President Reagan in 1988, has been moving in this direction for at least a decade. He has written all of the Court's most important decisions validating the rights of gay people and same-sex relationships.

And in the process, perhaps unintentionally, he has made June 26 into a major date for gay rights: Friday's ruling fell on the anniversary of two of Kennedy's most important rulings striking down laws that discriminated against same-sex couples.

Friday's decision, which said same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in every state, is a sort of capstone to Kennedy's gay-rights jurisprudence. He didn't necessarily come to the Court ready to recognize same-sex marriage, but it's pretty easy to track his steady, consistent evolution toward this week's momentous final step.

1996: Romer v. Evans

Almost 20 years ago, Kennedy wrote the Court's 6-3 decision striking down an amendment to the Colorado constitution that singled out gay people for unequal treatment. The amendment prohibited any arm of the state government—including the legislature and the Courts—from taking any action to protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Kennedy's opinion doesn't have the same rhetorical flourishes he would adopt later, but the outcome was consistent: Colorado's amendment "classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else," Kennedy wrote. The Court struck down the amendment as a violation of the Equal Protection clause.

June 26, 2003: Lawrence v. Texas

The June 26 trend started in 2003, when Kennedy wrote the Court's 6-3 ruling striking down anti-sodomy laws. The decision was another major step forward for gay rights, in part because of its focus on couples' dignity—a recurring theme in Kennedy's rulings.

"When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring. The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice," Kennedy wrote.

He wasn't sure yet whether same-sex relationships were "entitled to formal recognition in the law," but ruled that private sexual conduct between two consenting adults couldn't be criminalized. "When homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law of the State, that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres," Kennedy wrote for the Court.

June 26, 2013: U.S. v. Windsor

A decade after Lawrence, Kennedy's ire turned toward federal law. In a 5-4 ruling that essentially put the Court's informal stamp of approval on same-sex marriage, the Court—led by Kennedy—struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples. Kennedy's focus on dignity ratcheted up, and he also argued that DOMA was unfair to children raised by parents of the same sex.

"DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition," Kennedy said. "This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage."

By this point, a lot of legal observers—including Justice Antonin Scalia, Kennedy's chief antagonist on matters of gay rights—saw the writing on the wall. Although the Court passed on a chance in 2013 to rule on state laws banning same-sex marriage, Scalia said Kennedy's ruling against DOMA all but guaranteed that those laws would fall sooner or later.

Two years later to the day, in fact.

June 26, 2015: Obergefell v. Hodges

If Kennedy's past decisions reflected a certain restraint, to at least technically avoid answering the most fundamental questions about same-sex marriage, he let it all fly Friday.

"It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation's society," he wrote. "Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning."

Kennedy's ruling on nationwide same-sex marriage hits all the high points: It specifically cites both Lawrence and Windsor to lay out the framework of equal treatment and the importance of marriage as a social institution—and then takes it up a notch.

"Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other," Kennedy wrote in one of several passages almost tailor-made for readings at a wedding ceremony.

The trend toward broader acceptance of same-sex marriage, both legally and in public opinion, started to move a lot faster in the two years following the Court's ruling in Windsor. Indeed, Kennedy's first question during oral arguments in Obergefell was about the wisdom of changing a definition of marriage that "has been with us for millennia."

But his decision specifically rejects the charge that the Court might be moving too quickly, by casting marriage as a right too important to leave up to legislatures.

"While the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right," Kennedy said.

June 26, 2003: Lawrence v. Texas

The June 26 trend started in 2003, when Kennedy wrote the Court's 6-3 ruling striking down anti-sodomy laws. The decision was another major step forward for gay rights, in part because of its focus on couples' dignity—a recurring theme in Kennedy's rulings.

"When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring. The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice," Kennedy wrote.

He wasn't sure yet whether same-sex relationships were "entitled to formal recognition in the law," but ruled that private sexual conduct between two consenting adults couldn't be criminalized. "When homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law of the State, that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres," Kennedy wrote for the Court.

June 26, 2013: U.S. v. Windsor

A decade after Lawrence, Kennedy's ire turned toward federal law. In a 5-4 ruling that essentially put the Court's informal stamp of approval on same-sex marriage, the Court—led by Kennedy—struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples. Kennedy's focus on dignity ratcheted up, and he also argued that DOMA was unfair to children raised by parents of the same sex.

"DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition," Kennedy said. "This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage."

By this point, a lot of legal observers—including Justice Antonin Scalia, Kennedy's chief antagonist on matters of gay rights—saw the writing on the wall. Although the Court passed on a chance in 2013 to rule on state laws banning same-sex marriage, Scalia said Kennedy's ruling against DOMA all but guaranteed that those laws would fall sooner or later.

Two years later to the day, in fact.

June 26, 2015: Obergefell v. Hodges

If Kennedy's past decisions reflected a certain restraint, to at least technically avoid answering the most fundamental questions about same-sex marriage, he let it all fly Friday.

"It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation's society," he wrote. "Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning."

Kennedy's ruling on nationwide same-sex marriage hits all the high points: It specifically cites both Lawrence and Windsor to lay out the framework of equal treatment and the importance of marriage as a social institution—and then takes it up a notch.

"Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other," Kennedy wrote in one of several passages almost tailor-made for readings at a wedding ceremony.

The trend toward broader acceptance of same-sex marriage, both legally and in public opinion, started to move a lot faster in the two years following the Court's ruling in Windsor. Indeed, Kennedy's first question during oral arguments in Obergefell was about the wisdom of changing a definition of marriage that "has been with us for millennia."

But his decision specifically rejects the charge that the Court might be moving too quickly, by casting marriage as a right too important to leave up to legislatures.

"While the Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right," Kennedy said.

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