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Baker v. Nelson, 291 Minn. 310 (Minn. 1971), 409 U.S. 810 (1972), was a case in which the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Minnesota law limited marriage to opposite-sex couples, and that this limitation did not violate the United States Constitution. The plaintiffs appealed, and the United States Supreme Court, 409 U.S. 810 (1972), dismissed the appeal "for want of [a] substantial federal question". That dismissal by the Supreme Court of the United States constituted a decision on the merits, and established Baker v. Nelson as the controlling precedent as a matter of federal constitutional law on the issue of same-sex marriage.


On May 18, 1970, two University of Minnesota gay student activists, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell, applied to Gerald R. Nelson, the clerk of Minnesota's Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis, for a marriage license. Nelson denied the request on the sole ground that the two were of the same sex. Baker and McConnell then sued Nelson, contending that Minnesota law permitted same-sex marriages, and arguing against Nelson's interpretation that it did not violate their rights under the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The trial court ruled Nelson was not required to issue Baker and McConnell a marriage license, and specifically directed that they not be issued a license. On appeal, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's ruling, and specifically ruled that Minnesota's limiting of marriage to opposite-sex unions "does not offend the First, Eighth, Ninth, or Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution".

Later that year, the couple applied for and were awarded a marriage license by the Blue Earth County Commissioner in Mankato, Minnesota. Because of the Minnesota Supreme Court decision, the license was deemed invalid. The couple still claims it is valid to this day, and attempted to file a joint tax return in 2004. After the IRS rejected the joint return, McConnell filed an action in Federal District Court, seeking a federal income tax refund in the amount of $793.28 and a declaration that he is "a full citizen who is lawfully married and, by that fact, entitled to be treated the same as every other married Minnesotan, similarly situated". McConnell's action was rejected by the Court.[1]

Opinion of the court

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)—in which the Court ruled that a statute probiting interracial marriages was unconstitutional—was not applicable to the Baker case. The Minnesota Supreme Court acknowledged the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits some state restrictions upon the right to marry, but that "in commonsense and in a constitutional sense, there is a clear distinction between a marital restriction based merely upon race and one based upon the fundamental difference in sex".

Review by the United States Supreme Court

Upon losing their case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, Baker and McConnell appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court dismissed the case "for want of a substantial federal question."

Unlike a denial of certiorari, a dismissal for want of a substantial federal question constitutes a decision on the merits of the case, and as such, is binding precedent on all lower Federal Courts.

"[U]ntil the Supreme Court should instruct otherwise, inferior federal courts had best adhere to the view that the Court has branded a question as unsubstantial". Hicks v. Miranda, 422 U.S. 332, 344 (1975) "[D]ismissals for want of a substantial federal question without doubt reject the specific challenges presented in the statement of jurisdiction". Mandel v. Bradley, 432 U.S. 173, 176 (1977). Lower Federal Courts are expressly prohibited from ruling in a way inconsistent with binding precedent. "[Summary decisions] prevent lower courts from coming to opposite conclusions on the precise issues presented and necessarily decided by those actions." Mandel v. Bradley, 432 U.S. 173, 176 (1977)

This is explicit not only in the holdings of the United States Supreme Court, but also the holdings of other Circuit Courts. "[L]ower courts are bound by summary decision by this Court until such time as the Court informs [them] that [they] are not". Doe v. Hodgson, 478 F.2d 537, 539 (2nd Cir. 1973)

Baker is binding precedent and unless overruled by the United States Supreme Court, it remains that way. As such Baker establishes that a State's decision to prohibit same-sex marriage does not offend the United States Constitution.

See also

  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 409

External links

  • Text of McConnell v. United States.