Anxious Georgians await key court rulings

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a measured decision on affirmative action Monday, leaving three of its most anticipated rulings — two on same-sex marriage and one on voting rights — for today or later this week. And that left Georgians on both sides of those supercharged issues in a state of high anxiety.

On affirmative action, the court voted 7 to 1 to sustain the use of race as a criterion in college admissions, but only when schools can show ‘‘that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.’’ It was hardly a definitive, game-changing opinion, but that took none of the edge off for those with eyes trained on the court for the big rulings yet to come.

Linda Ellis, who lives in Decatur with her lesbian partner and two children, knows today will start with her 11-year-old son Sam asking the question he’s asked every day the court has met in recent weeks: Is the decision coming today?

While they’re trolling the Internet for news, Gene Vineyard of Carrollton will be tuned to Fox News, hoping the court will rule against marriage between gays and lesbians.

The court heard two cases on the subject this term: One sought to overturn California’s voter-ratified ban on same-sex marriage; the other challenged the federal government’s denial of benefits to gay couples under the Defense of Marriage Act.

Traditionally, the court renders its decisions on Mondays and Thursdays. But with its term set to end this week, and so many big cases still unresolved, the justices have said they will deliver opinions today and possibly Wednesday as well.

Ellis and her partner of 25 years would like to marry, but same-sex marriages were banned in Georgia by a 2004 constitutional amendment. With each day that the court meets, “we’re hitting refresh a lot” on Facebook, said Ellis, who is executive director of The Health Initiative, an Atlanta-based group serving gays. “It could be a long week.”

Vineyard, who works as a business recruiter, knows that legally, the court may find a middle course on the issue, just as it did on affirmative action. But his opposition has no wiggle room.

“From a religious standpoint, there’s no gray area,” Vineyard said. “God said marriage should be one man and one woman.”

Like Ellis and Vineyard, Janice Mathis was all wound up Monday morning, checking her smart phone for news before breakfast. But her focus was on the Voting Rights Act.

“Watching the Supreme Court is almost like watching the Vatican: You’re not going to know anything until you see the smoke,” said Mathis, the Atlanta-based national vice president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. (She was referring to the Vatican tradition of sending white smoke up the Sistine Chapel chimney to signal the selection of a new pope.)

The court is considering a challenge to a section of the landmark civil rights law, passed in 1965. Under Section 5, all governments in states with a history of racial discrimination — including Georgia — must get federal approval before implementing redistricting and other changes affecting elections.

Critics say the provision is a tool of another era, no longer needed.

Among those with a keen interest on the court’s ruling is Georgia House Speaker David Ralston.

“I’m not sure that it’s necessary any more, frankly,” Ralston said. “We have benchmarks we know we have to comply with, and we did a very good job of that here in Georgia.”

But civil rights veteran Joseph E. Lowery, who is relying on newspapers to inform him of the court’s actions, still sees discrimination as a clear and present danger.

“Thirty-something states are passing legislation to curtail our voting rights, ” he said. “Without Section 5, they will do it every year. They have no intention of liberating us, voting-wise. How can they assume that we don’t need section 5?”

Even so, he said, “I don’t have any confidence in this court.”

Gov. Nathan Deal, who voted against the law’s extension while a member of Congress, said the legislation was always designed to be temporary but almost five decades later it’s still in force.

Any lawyer will tell you there’s no way to predict what the Supreme Court will do, and Deal, a former prosecutor, is no exception. But he has a hunch: “I seriously doubt, in light of the history of the legislation, that it will stand the final scrutiny of the court.”

There’s even less certainty among those awaiting the marriage rulings.

Vineyard, who attended a rally against same-sex marriage some years ago at the state Capitol, worries that the court is not as conservative as it should be. He didn’t like the court’s decision last year to uphold Obamacare.

“I think they’ll rule in favor of same-sex marriage,” but not to the extent that the decision supersedes state laws, he said. And regardless of what happens, he said, the struggle to define marriage will play out for years to come. “It won’t be over.”

Though she’s in the opposing camp, Ellis offers a similar prognosis. Given the decades of strife that followed the court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade, she believes the court will take a more cautious tack on same-sex marriage than it did on abortion. That might mean upholding state’s rights to define marriage, while offering some encouragement for advocates of same-sex unions.

Her big worry today is how she’ll get the news. She’s leading a training session this morning, so she won’t be able to check the web. She’ll be depending on friends to send her text messages on her phone.

And if her phone begins to vibrate? “We might schedule a bathroom break,” she said.