The High Court of Australia has unanimously today upheld the Commonwealth’s challenge to the validity of the ACT’s same-sex marriage laws.
The suggestion made in this blog yesterday that the Court would only make orders with reasons to follow at a later date was too pessimistic an assessment of the Court’s capacity to provide a reasoned judgment.
In those reasons for judgment, the Court agreed with the consensus position submitted by the Commonwealth and the ACT that the reference to “marriage” in the Constitution includes same-sex marriage, thus confirming that the Commonwealth could, if it chose to do so, legislate with respect to same-sex marriage.
However, ultimately the Court held that the ACT’s Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act 2013 could not operate concurrently with the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961. The ACT law was therefore inoperative. Their reasons for so holding are commendably clear and concise:
It is necessary to bear steadily in mind that the federal Parliament has power under s 51(xxi) to make a national law with respect to same sex marriage. (The Parliament’s power under s 122 of the Constitution to make laws for the government of any Territory need not be considered.) The federal Parliament has not made a law permitting same sex marriage. But the absence of a provision permitting same sex marriage does not mean that the Territory legislature may make such a provision. It does not mean that a Territory law permitting same sex marriage can operate concurrently with the federal law. The question of concurrent operation depends upon the proper construction of the relevant laws. In particular, there cannot be concurrent operation of the federal and Territory laws if, on its true construction, the Marriage Act is to be read as providing that the only form of marriage permitted shall be a marriage formed or recognised in accordance with that Act.
The Marriage Act regulates the creation and recognition of the legal status of marriage throughout Australia. The Act's definition of marriage sets the bounds of that legal status within the topic of juristic classification with which the Act deals. Read as a whole, the Marriage Act, at least in the form in which it now stands, makes the provisions which it does about marriage as a comprehensive and exhaustive statement of the law with respect to the creation and recognition of the legal status of marriage. Why otherwise was the Marriage Act amended, as it was in 2004, by introducing a definition of marriage in the form which now appears, except for the purpose of demonstrating that the federal law on marriage was to be complete and exhaustive?
The 2004 amendments to the Marriage Act made plain (if it was not already plain) that the federal marriage law is a comprehensive and exhaustive statement of the law of marriage. Those amendments applied the newly introduced definition of marriage to the provisions governing solemnisation of marriage and gave effect to that definition in the provisions governing the recognition of marriages solemnised outside Australia. Section 88EA of the Marriage Act (inserted by the 2004 amendments) provides expressly that a union solemnised in a foreign country between persons of the same sex must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.
These particular provisions of the Marriage Act, read in the context of the whole Act, necessarily contain the implicit negative proposition that the kind of marriage provided for by the Act is the only kind of marriage that may be formed or recognised in Australia. It follows that the provisions of the ACT Act which provide for marriage under that Act cannot operate concurrently with the Marriage Act and accordingly are inoperative. Giving effect to those provisions of the ACT Act would alter, impair or detract from the Marriage Act. Within the Commonwealth, the Marriage Act determines the capacity of a person to enter the union that creates the status of marriage with its attendant rights and obligations of mutual support and advancement. Under the Marriage Act, a person has no legal capacity to attain that status, with the rights and obligations attendant on it, by entry into a union with a person of the same sex.
The full text of the judgment is available here.