US: The troubling politics of the Texas Supreme Court's reversal on same-sex benefits

Last month, the Texas Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn a lower court ruling guaranteeing benefits to the spouses of gay and lesbian public employees. The case will likely be the latest in a group of marriage equality cases to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, following Arkansas' Pavan v. Smith and Colorado's Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

The same nine members of the Texas Supreme Court voted last year to uphold the lower court's decision in the case, titled Pidgeon v. Parker, which was filed by Houston taxpayers Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks in 2013 after the city announced it would provide benefits to the same-sex spouses of public employees. By the time the state Supreme Court heard the case in September 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriage in its watershed 2015 Obergefell ruling, and the Texas justices voted 8-1 to drop the challenge to Houston's spousal benefits measure.

But on June 30, all eight Texas justices who had previously dismissed the case as without merit signed an opinion arguing the opposite, jeopardizing protections for LGBT public employees. While the U.S. Supreme Court recognized gay marriage, they said, it didn't require states to provide public benefits to same-sex spouses so denying such benefits was still constitutional.

What compelled them to change their minds?  

Some have argued they were riding a change in political tides. "The best explanation for the flip is that the Texas court of elected justices is sensing the mood of the state — and maybe the country," legal scholar Noah Feldman wrote earlier this year after the court agreed to hear the case. "It's anticipating that a Supreme Court with at least two Trump nominees could reverse Obergefell. And it wants to signal in some way that it's on the 'right' — i.e. wrong — side of constitutional history."

But there may be more to the story than a nationwide conservative swing. The Texas Tribune pointed to "an outpouring of letters" and "pressure from Texas GOP leadership — spearheaded by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who asked the court to clarify that Obergefell does not include a 'command' to public employers regarding employee benefits." Read more via Facing South