Originally appeared at Slate.com on June 12, 2013.


Supreme Court watchers have long made a national sport out of parsing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s every word. From issues as diverse as the death penalty, terrorism, and gay rights, Kennedy has been the only conservative justice to vote with the court’s more liberal wing. It’s not surprising, therefore, that as we wait for the court’s decision on same-sex marriage bans, the search for clues to Kennedy’s thinking has shifted into high gear.

In March, during the oral argument about California’s same-sex marriage ban, Kennedy said that he was “trying to wrestle” with a “difficult question” about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. The question on his mind was whether prohibitions on same-sex marriage are a form of gender discrimination. The lawyer defending the ban, Charles Cooper, responded that this was a case about sexual orientation, not gender, and the argument quickly moved in a different direction.

But we shouldn’t dismiss Kennedy’s question about gender discrimination too hastily. The court’s precedents on gender might offer Kennedy the conservative compromise he is looking for: a way to recognize a constitutional right for same-sex marriage in a limited way.