Federalism, Due Process, and Equal Protection: Stereoscopic Synergy in Bond and Windsor

Few constitutional themes have galvanized popular political factions—and, consequently, have been perceived to be in natural tension with each other—as much as federalism, on one side, and the substantive due process and equal protection doctrines, on the other. The concepts have assumed these polarized and competing public associations through their practical interactions over the twentieth century, often serving as both the targets and the weapons of charges of judicial activism. However, the Supreme Court’s recent opinions in United States v. Windsor and Bond v. United States, read together, reveal an attempt to reconcile these two seemingly disparate constitutional themes. Specifically, Justice Kennedy’s writings in both cases suggest an ironic conservative salvaging of the fundamental interest strand of the equal protection doctrine. In this modern take on the doctrine that first gained popularity under the more liberal Warren and Burger Courts but attracted little attention since, an individual’s fundamental interest in the rights created by her state within its reserved powers is fused with equal protection concerns to motivate a heightened tier of judicial scrutiny. This Note argues that such “stereoscopic synergy” may serve as a value-free, representation-reinforcing judicial mechanism: It provides a framework by which courts may correct defaults in the political process’s protection of minorities’ interests when federal law discriminately recognizes validly enacted state regulations based on the suspect or quasi-suspect class of the burdened individuals. This same analysis can be applied to advance causes championed on opposite ends of the political spectrum, such as medical marijuana use and private gun ownership. As such, this conservative twist on a historically liberal concept disrupts the popular culture’s perception of federalism and substantive due process-equal protection as necessarily conflicting doctrines.