The Meaning of Obama’s DOMA Decision
February 23rd, 2011
The obvious question behind today’s announcement that the Obama Administration would not defend the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in two cases filed last November is this: What does this mean today?
So far, not much. DOMA is still on the books, and it has not been declared unconstitutional. It does mean however that the Justice Department won’t defend section 3 of the statute which bars federal recognition of marriage of same-sex couples when that portion of the law is challenged in court. And so one possibiliy is that we may have a national patchwork of DOMA enforcement — it is kaput where Federal judges or their Appeals Courts have ruled against it, while it remains on the books where the courts have upheld the law or haven’t ruled. That would make, for example, the IRS’s administering the tax code a logitical nightmare, with some gay couples filing as married couples in some jurisdictions while others are barred from doing so elsewhere. Immigration can become a similar quagmire for transnational couples. Without, ultimately, either an appeal somewhere to the Supreme Court or repeal of DOMA itself, it’s going to be very intresting — and probably frustrating — for a very long time.
(Speaking of repeal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has announced that she will introduce a bill into the Senate doing exactly that.)
One encouraging possibility to this decision however is that the Administration and Justice Department may have read the tea leaves on the current court and adjusted accordingly:
The announcement today does not overturn the law. That would take an act of Congress or a final finding by the judicial branch, probably the Supreme Court. But it changes the vector of the legal cases considerably. Privately, the administration believes that five justices of the Court, including Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote, would find parts or most of DOMA invalid if the federal government withdrew its arguments in defense of it.
Why the change now and not when the Justice Department was arguing to uphold DOMA before a Federal Judge in Massachusetts earlier last year? The answer hinges on the difference in legal precedent between the two sets of cases filed in different districts of Federal Court:
Citing an executive-branch duty to defend acts of Congress when plausible arguments exist that they are constitutional, the Obama administration had previously argued that legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act should be dismissed.
But those lawsuits were filed in circuits that had precedents saying that when gay people say a law infringes on their rights, judges should use a test called “rational basis” to evaluate that claim. Under that standard, the law is presumed to be constitutional, and challengers must prove that there is no conceivable rational government basis for enacting it, a hard standard for challengers to meet.
But the new lawsuits were filed in districts covered by the appeals court in New York. That court has no precedent establishing which legal test judges should use when evaluating claims that a federal law violates gay people’s rights.
That vacuum meant that the administration’s legal team had to perform its own analysis of whether gay people were entitled to the protection of a test known as “heightened scrutiny.” Under that test, it is much easier to challenge laws that unequally affect a group, because the test presumes that such laws are unconstitutional, and they may be upheld only if the lawmakers’ purpose in enacting them served a compelling governmental interest.
There’s one more thing that bears watching. Attorney Gen. Erik Holder dangled some political bait for DOMA’s supporters in Congress by pointing out that “Our attorneys will also notify the courts of our interest in providing Congress a full and fair opportunity to participate in the litigation in those cases.” Will Boehner or any other DOMA supporters in Congress rise to the challenge of casting aside their “only interested in the economy” mantra to defend this law?