Ely at the Altar: Political Process Theory through the Lens of the Marriage Debate
Political process theory, closely associated with the work of John Hart Ely and footnote four in United States v. Carolene Products, has long been a staple of constitutional law and theory. It is best known for the idea that courts may legitimately reject the decisions of a majority when the democratic process that produced the decision was unfair to a disadvantaged social group. This Article analyzes political process theory through the lens of the contemporary debate over same-sex marriage. Its analysis is grounded in state supreme court decisions on the constitutionality of barring same-sex marriage, as well as the high-profile, recent trial in federal court on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which featured extended testimony by opposing political scientists on gay and lesbian political power. The Article argues that the marriage debate reveals deep conceptual problems with process theory as it has been conventionally understood, and that looking at the theory through this lens can point the way to refashioning it in both doctrinal and conceptual terms. It calls for a more substantive and nuanced conception of democratic equality, as well as a more realistic institutional understanding of courts and the political process.