“Playing It Safe” with Empirical Evidence: Selective Use of Social Science in Supreme Court Cases About Racial Justice and Marriage Equality

Russell K. Robinson,David M. Frost | June 1, 2018

This Essay seeks to draw connections between race, sexual orientation, and social science in Supreme Court litigation. In some respects, advocates for racial minorities and sexual minorities face divergent trajectories. Among those asserting civil rights claims, LGBT rights claimants have been uniquely successful at the Court ever since Romer v. Evans in the mid-1990s. During this period, advocates for racial minorities have fought to preserve earlier victories in cases such as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke and have failed to overturn precedents that strictly limit equal protection possibilities, such as McCleskey v. Kemp. Nonetheless, we argue that the Court’s “fear of too much justice” links race and sexual orientation cases and helps to explain victories as well as losses. Even when advocates win in a case like Obergefell v. Hodges or Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court carefully cabins its opinion so as not to destabilize the social hierarchy. We illustrate this claim through a close examination of the use of social science in Obergefell. The Court disregarded evidence suggesting that same-sex couples and parents experience positive differences, as compared to heterosexuals, such as instilling greater respect for gender and sexual orientation equality in their children. The Court also asserted the innocence of opponents of same-sex marriage, ignoring evidence linking the denial of access to marriage to homophobia. In short, a movement to upend homophobic marriage laws was itself confined by homophobia, which influenced which arguments lawyers and Justices could articulate.