DOMA: recap, summary, and analysis
February 24th, 2011
It has been a day since Attorney General Holder announced the Obama Administration’s position on the constitutionality of Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and we are beginning to get a sense of how this will impact individuals in various states. Some of this is consistent with early assumptions and thinking, some is different from my earlier thoughts, and some is as yet unclear.
Before we discuss the impact, let’s revisit the law. DOMA had three sections and, to better understand the issue, here is the law as it is on the books:
Section 1 named the act: “This Act may be cited as the `Defense of Marriage Act’.”
Section 2 revised chapter 115 of the United States Code, which deals in part with the full faith and credit aspects of states’ interaction, and gave permission to the states to ignore any marriage laws of other states that relate to same-sex couples:
No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.
Section 3 revised Title 1, Chapter 1 of the United States Code to define “marriage” and “spouse.” Prior to DOMA, these terms were defined by the states and not by the federal government. It is significant and telling that DOMA’s third section was placed in such a prominent position in the US Code; it says that for all of our social contract, our form of government, our protections and requirements and obligations and rights, before we consider anything else, we shall exclude same-sex couples from consideration:
In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word “marriage” means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.
The challenges and the Administration’s postion:
The challenges to DOMA to date are as follows:
Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services (1:09-cv-11156-JLT) – Massachusetts has defined its marriage laws according to its community standards as, since the inception of the nation, states have been allowed to do. However, upon Massachusetts’ recognition of marriage between same-sex couples the federal government ignored the state’s issuance, recording and recognition, instead choosing to implement Congress’ definition of marriage. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley sued the Department of Health and Human Services to defend the state’s rights and the case was heard by Federal First Circuit Court Judge Joseph Tauro.
Gill v. the Office of Personnel Management (1:09-cv-10309-JLT) – Nancy Gill and Marcelle Letourneau, along with other same-sex couples married under the laws of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, argued that Section 3 of DOMA violated the equal protections provisions of the US Constitution. They were represented by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the case was consolidated with others (see above) and argued before Judge Joseph Tauro in conjuction with Commonwealth.
On July 8, 2010, Tauro found that Congress had exceeded its authority by seeking to assume powers that were reserved to the states (Commonwealth). Separately, he found that there was not even a rational basis for unequal treatments between legally married heterosexual couples and legally married homosexual couples (Gill).
My observations at that time were
These cases do not discuss whether states may deny marriage equality, only whether the federal government may do so. If it is constitutionally permissible to discriminate against gay people in matters of marriage, only states may enact that discrimination.
Taken together, it seems clear that Tauro finds that a distinction based on marriage is permissible. But one that is based on sexual orientation is not. This would seem to suggest that because states can determine marriage laws (Commonwealth), it can either allow or refuse same-sex marriage (until otherwise restricted). So those legally married same-sex couples in Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Washington DC, New York and Maryland and some 18,000 couples in California would be married in the eyes of the federal government while those in civil unions or domestic partnerships would not.
The Justice Department appealed Tauro’s decision on October 12, 2010 and filed a brief on January 14, 2011 defending DOMA.
Dragovich v US Dept. of Treasury (4:10-cv-01564-CW) – The Legal Aid Society sued on behalf of California public employees who were not allowed to include their spouses in CalPERS’ long-term care plan due to federal restrictions on the state program’s recognition of marriages and spouses.
On January 18, 2011, Ninth Circuit Federal Judge Claudia Wilkin refused the government’s motion to dismiss in a response that strongly indicated that Wilkin would find that Section 3 of DOMA violated both the due process and equal protection provisions of the US Constitution.
Pedersen et al. v. Office of Personnel Management (3:10-cv-01750-VLB) – Following on their success in Gill, GLAD filed in the Second Circuit Court on behalf of Joanne Pedersen & Ann Meitzen, a legally married couple under Connecticut law along with couples married in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Pedersen was filed on November 9, 2010, and the first round of filings are due on March 31. At that time the Department of Justice can file for dismissal and GLAD can file for summary judgment.
Windsor v. United States (1:10-cv-08435-BSJ)- This case, filed by the ACLU, has a unique fact pattern. Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer married in Canada in 2007 and their marriage was recognized by their home state of New York (which does not currently grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples). When Spyer died, her estate was taxed with no consideration to their marriage status.
Windsor was filed on November 9, 2010, concurrent with Pederson, and the date for the defense to file a motion to dismiss is March 31, 2011. (Holder’s letter places this date at March 11, but the docket states March 31. In either case, it is quite soon)
To recap, Commonweath deals with the rights of states to define marriage. Gill, Dragovich, Pedersen, and Windsor all deal with the rights of individuals to due process and equal access. None of these cases challenge Section 2 of DOMA or question whether one state must recognize same-sex marriages conducted in another.
What the Administration announced:
In his letter to Speaker of the House Boehner, the attorney general laid out a legal determination and a consequential plan of action. The legal determination was two-fold.
First, Holder recognized that in those court districts in which the appropriate level of scrutiny for anti-gay discrimination had no precedent, the defendants would be required to argue for such a level. And the Department of Justice found itself unable to make a cogent argument that only rational basis be applied.
The Supreme Court has established a three part test to determine whether rational basis or a stricter level of scrutiny be considered: a history of discrimination, immutable characteristics comprising a discrete group, and political powerless minority subject to majority whim. On all three of these, the DOJ found itself incapable of arguing for rational basis and thus found that only strict scrutiny could be applied to sexual-orientation based discrimination.
Secondly, Holder acknowledged that his office was incapable of presenting any argument in favor of anti-gay discrimination that could stand up to strict scrutiny. While theoretically rational basis arguments can be pie in the sky (though they must at least be rational), strict scrutiny required tangible real and compelling reasons for the discrimination that were tied to the legislature’s actual reasoning and there just wasn’t anything to present.
It is important to understand that the Administration did not say that it was refusing on unwilling to defend the law but rather that it was incapable of defending the law. There simply were no arguments to present to the court.
Those who claim that the Administration is “choosing which laws to defend” are either confused or dishonest. Those who say that this will “nationalize” same-sex marriage and impose it on unwilling states are either confused or dishonest. Those who go on TV and spout completely false information about this decision are either irresponsible or dishonest. I’m inclined to suspect ‘dishonest.’
In consequence, the DOJ announced that it would not present arguments to the judges in Pedersen and Windsor that these cases should be tried under rational basis. Should the judges independently determine that no stricter scrutiny than rational basis would be considered, the DOJ was capable of defending DOMA on rational basis pie in the sky notions.
But unless the judges independently determined that rational basis was the standard, the Department of Justice would not attempt to justify DOMA under stricter scrutiny because they had no arguments to present.
What does this mean?
Immediately, nothing. The law remains on the books, the Administration will continue to administer the law, and gay couples have no more federal recognition than two random roommates living in a dorm.
However, it is a very short time before this could all change. The House of Representatives has a small window in which to decide whether to defend DOMA in court. Should they fail to do so, then in March the courts will be presented with a motion for summary judgment (a request for a trial-less determination) which argues that DOMA Section 3 is unconstitutional, and in response the DOJ will say, “I got nothing.”
Presented with only one side, it is extremely probable that the judges will find for the plaintiffs and order the federal government to recognize their marriages. This could be limited to specific circumstances for individual plaintiffs or applied broadly against the United States and applicable to all same-sex marriages. However, without appeal to the US Supreme Court, then these decisions will only apply to same-sex married couples in Second Circuit states (Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York).
Should the House intervene, a not-unlikely possibility, then the House will be allowed to present arguments that only rational basis be applied and that DOMA’s discrimination achieves a governmental function. However, they will do so with the additional burden or explaining why not only the plaintiffs but the Department of Justice are incorrect in their interpretation of the Constitution.
Meanwhile the Massachusetts and California cases continue. It is difficult to know exactly how the Administration’s decision will play into these cases. Having announced that you believe DOMA Section 3 to violate the US Constitution, courts are less likely to believe the sincerity of arguments otherwise.
“We assume they will withdraw their briefs. Unless we hear otherwise, we believe the Department of Justice’s intention is not to defend any of these cases,” said Coakley, whose suit contended that the federal law unfairly created two classes of married people.
Should the government withdraw its appeal in Gill and Commonwealth, then Judge Tauro will order the United States to recognize Massachusetts’ same-sex marriages. It is unclear whether the House would have any standing to appeal this DOMA decision.
But unless the federal government opts not to appeal to the Supreme Court and the House opts not to intervene, this issue will eventually end up before the Supreme Court (as it could through Dragovich or Perry). And there are a few ways the court could go.
Should they decide to hear Commonweath first, that could make all of the other cases moot. They could determine that states have, as they always have had, the right to define marriage. Doing so could avoid or delay any requirement to determine whether in such definition a state can distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages as Commonwealth does not address that issue.
Should they decide that the federal government has a newly found right to establish family law, then they would have to deal with the various other cases which deal with discrimination against individuals. This could be an interesting direction.
Although these cases are federal cases and speak only to what the federal government can do, should the SCOTUS find that federal anti-gay marriage law violates the constitutional rights of individuals, it is difficult to see how that would not also be true of the states. While we have assumed that Ted Olson and David Boies would be the ones to argue the unconstitutionality of banning same-sex marriage, it is possible that due to timing (delays or expedition) it could be GLAD or the ACLU.