WASHINGTON – There’s a widow who was a pioneer of the “modern marriage,” and one who never wed. Two divorcees.
There is a husband who married relatively late in life and adopted two children. Another is a prolific procreator, with enough children to field a baseball team and enough grandchildren to form a basketball league. One is in an interracial marriage, which would have been illegal in his home state only 20 years before his wedding.
As the Supreme Court prepares to consider the American tradition of marriage, the justices themselves display a wide range of personal choices reflective of the modern experience.
In the court’s first full examination of same-sex marriage, the unifying theme of those defending traditional marriage is that government has an important interest in promoting marriage among heterosexual couples because of their reproductive ability.
But the issue comes before a court on which four of the nine justices have never married or have had marriages that did not produce biological offspring.
Volumes of briefs have been filed in a pair of potentially historic cases, raising issues that personally resonate with the justices – the role of adoptive parents, the place of couples unable to or uninterested in having children, and possible parallels with laws that once prohibited marriages between the races.
Their personal choices look “just like the rest of America,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on marriage whose work is cited in briefs filed in the two cases scheduled for March 26 and 27.
The same-sex marriage issue brings to the court questions of a state’s freedom to define and limit marriage and how far the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection extends. Justices say they must look past their personal lives when deciding such weighty issues.
But the past has shown that each of the nine also brings a unique set of life experiences to the work.
Justice Clarence Thomas has often written opinions with a racial perspective none of his colleagues share. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has pointed out how sex discrimination is practiced in the real world. And Justice Samuel Alito, a former prosecutor, often provides a lawman’s view on criminal justice issues.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her recent autobiography that she married her high school sweetheart with no intention of having children. She later divorced.
President Obama’s other Supreme Court pick, Justice Elena Kagan, has never married and has no children.
Chief Justice John Roberts and his wife Jane were both 41 when they married. Having children was always a goal, and four years later they adopted a daughter and a son.
Thomas has a son, Jamal, from his first marriage. But his marriage to Virginia Lamp Thomas, whom he wed in 1987, has not produced children. The Thomases are among the 8.4 percent of American marriages with interracial partners, which was illegal in their state of Virginia until 1967.
Justice Antonin Scalia is father to nine and grandfather to 33.
The court’s oldest justice, Ginsburg, 80, had a prototypical “modern” marriage. She always worked and shared child-rearing with her husband Martin, who died in 2010.