As 2013 drew to a close, a handful of legal cases about two of the most important conversations from the past year—same-sex marriage, and NSA surveillance—were decided. But, in the midst of end-of-the-year lists, college football games and holiday hoopla, the cases attracted only minor attention, even though considered individually and together, the cases serve as important bookmarks about where these conversations stand and, more so, as a preface for what the most important national conversations in 2014 promise to be.
The first set of court cases concerned same-sex marriages in states where they have been banned. Starting in August, a county clerk in New Mexico began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. His example was followed by several other county clerks in the southwestern state and, on Dec. 19, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously confirmed that the practice was legal, making New Mexico the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013, and the 17th overall.
A day later, a federal judge surprisingly declared that nearby and religiously conservative Utah's ban on same-sex marriage violated constitutional rights.
"In the absence of such evidence, the unsupported fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the State's refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens," U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby wrote in his 23-page opinion.
On Dec. 23, the first day same-sex marriages were allowed in Utah, Salt Lake County issued 353 licenses, quadrupling the previous record for single licenses in one day.
That same day, another federal judge struck down some provisions of Ohio's ban on same-sex marriages, saying that restrictions on survivors' rights were unconstitutional. These cases noted the increasing momentum of legalization of same-sex marriages, a year that began with fewer than ten states allowing such equality, and with no professional sport players out of the closet, but ended with eighteen states permitting same-sex marriage and President Obama purposefully sending gay athletes to represent the United States at the 2014 Winter Olympic delegation.
Meanwhile, a second batch of equally surprising court cases also were working their way through federal courts, a pair of conflicting decisions about what the NSA may and may not do. On Dec. 16, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon granted a preliminary injunction against government agents collecting phone records of two men, using such words as "Orwellian." But, a week later, on Dec. 27, a federal judge in Manhattan Circuit Court declared just the opposite. Citing the government's fight against terrorism, he declared the NSA phone tapping and wide-reaching surveillance of emails were necessary. That decision begs the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and resolve exactly what privacy expectations Americans should expect.
At first blush, same-sex marriage and NSA phone tapping may seem to be completely unrelated, yet, interestingly, they are two conversations about the same broader topic: The role of the government's interest and interference with our personal lives—in one case, asking for a validation and, in the other, asking to stay out.
These issues don't necessarily conflict directly, but they do draw out a squiggly line Americans are trying to determine between public and private interests. And, in the upcoming year, these meta-issues will take a much more definitive form. But even as we move toward a seeming conclusion—and probably Supreme Court cases—these issues also become more complicated. Like a Rubik's cube that is difficult to reconcile, the conflicts are hard to reconcile. A liberal, for example, who wants private matters like marriage sanctioned by the federal government also opens the door to other governmental interference and monitoring.
These questions about government involvement in our private lives are tricky to reconcile, and will dominate the coming year for Oregonians. Already, Sen. Ron Wyden is at the forefront of the NSA discussion as the most outspoken elected official requesting more openness about exactly how much the NSA is spying on regular citizens. And, in November, Oregonians are likely to vote on a ballot measure whether to roll back its current constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Happy New Year. However you spent it. Here's a glass slipper to 2014.