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Posts for November, 2012

“The Most Significant Cases These 9 Justice Have Ever Considered, And Probably Will Ever Decide”

Jim Burroway

November 30th, 2012

That’s according to SCOTUSblog’s publisher Tom Goldstein:

At their Conference today, the Justices will consider petitions raising federal constitutional issues related to same-sex marriage.  These are the most significant cases these nine Justices have ever considered, and probably that they will ever decide.

I have never before seen cases that I believed would be discussed two hundred years from now.  Bush v. Gore and Obamacare were relative pipsqueaks.  The government’s assertion of the power to prohibit a loving couple to marry, or to refuse to recognize such a marriage, is profound.  So is the opposite claim that five Justices can read the federal Constitution to strip the people of the power to enact the laws governing such a foundational social institution.

While the cases are historic, the justices are being called upon to judge them today:

Our country and societies around the world will read the Justices’ decision(s) not principally as a legal document but instead as a statement by a wise body about whether same-sex marriages are morally right or wrong.  The issues are that profound and fraught; they in a sense seem to transcend “law.”  Given the inevitability of same-sex marriage, if the Court rules against those claiming a right to have such unions recognized, it will later be judged to be “on the wrong side of history.”

But the verdict of history cannot decide the legal questions presented by these cases.  The cases arrive today, in this moment, before our cultural transition has completed.  In a sense, it is a shame that there is such pressure to hear the cases now; the judgment for the rest of the nation’s history would certainly favor these claims.  But if they do decide to grant review, the Justices cannot merely choose to embrace the past or the future.  They will have to make a judgment now.

You’ve got to read the whole thing. He’s right: this is history before our eyes, whether it winds up being Dred Scott or Loving v. Virginia.

Another Republican judge weighs in on marriage

Timothy Kincaid

October 19th, 2012

One of the things one regularly hears during election season are “Don’t vote for that Democrat, he’ll appoint pro-homosexual judges” and “Don’t vote for that Republican, she’ll appoint anti-gay judges.” But such simplistic assumptions are seldom accurate.

And in the fight for marriage rights in the courts, more often than not the judges finding that gay people are entitled to equal treatment under the law have been appointed by a Republican president or are themselves Republicans, sometimes quite conservative ones. And in this latest ruling – one that goes further than any to date – this pattern holds (LATimes)

“Homosexuals have suffered a history of discrimination,” Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs said for a 2-1 majority. And while gays have been winning political victories, he said, they are still subject to many discriminatory laws. Jacobs said courts should view all laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation with the same skepticism accorded to laws that discriminate based on gender.

Jacobs, who has a generally conservative reputation, was appointed to the court by former President George H.W. Bush. He was joined by Judge Christopher Droney, an appointee of President Clinton. In dissent, Judge Chester Straub, another Clinton appointee, said judges should not change the traditional definition of marriage. If it is to be changed, he wrote, “I believe it is for the American people to do so.”

It isn’t just disabusing us of silly memes that makes me appreciate this trend; I also think that it provides us with both a stronger position and greater hope. For one thing, it silences the screams about “liberal activist judges” and gives our neighbors assurance that our victories aren’t being awarded because of partisan legislation from the bench. Bipartisanship goes a long way towards cultural acceptance of judicial decisions.

But an even more important reason is the message it send to the Supreme Court. As Republican judges address this issue, they do so from a particular perspective with particular viewpoints on what the Constitution means. And when they write opinions, they do so utilizing language that reflects these perspectives and viewpoints. And as it is believed that the Supreme Court justices which will need to be swayed in our favor are all Republicans, these opinions can speak to them in the terms which best plead our case.

Second Appeals Upholds Lower Court Decision Striking Down DOMA’s Section 3

Jim Burroway

October 18th, 2012

The Second Court of Appeals in Manhattan has affirmed a lower court’s decision (PDF: 199KB/83 pages) which held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. The case, Windsor v. US. was brought by Edie Windsor, who is being forced to pay an inheritance tax of $363,053 after her legally married wife passed away, a tax that she would not have to pay if she had been married to a man. Last June, Federal District Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled that the tax was unconstitutional when she granted a motion for summary judgment last June.

The Second Court of Appeals’ ruling today is important for two reasons: First, the court find that heightened scrutiny is justified in evaluating DOMA:

Instead, we conclude that review of Section 3 of DOMA requires heightened scrutiny. The Supreme Court uses certain factors to decide whether a new classification qualifies as a quasi-suspect class. They include: A) whether the class has been historically “subjected to discrimination,”; B) whether the class has a defining characteristic that “frequently bears [a] relation to ability to perform or contribute to society,” C) whether the class exhibits “obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group;” and D) whether the class is “a minority or politically powerless.” Immutability and lack of political power are not strictly necessary factors to identify a suspect class. Nevertheless, immutability and political power are indicative, and we consider them here. In this case, all four factors justify heightened scrutiny: A) homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; B) homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; C) homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and D) the class remains a politically weakened minority.

According to the ACLU which brought the case on behalf of Edie Windsor, this is the first federal appeals court ruling to hold that government discrimination against gay people deserves heightened scrutiny. This means that the government must demonstrate that the law serves an important governmental interest in order to justify such discrimination. The bottom line for the court is this:

DOMA’s classification of same-sex spouses was not substantially related to an important government interest. Accordingly, we hold that Section 3 of DOMA violates equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional.

Our straightforward legal analysis sidesteps the fair point that same-sex marriage is unknown to history and tradition. But law (federal or state) is not concerned with holy matrimony. Government deals with marriage as a civil status–however fundamental–and New York has elected to extend that status to same-sex couples. A state may enforce and dissolve a couple’s marriage, but it cannot sanctify or bless it. For that, the pair must go next door.

The court’s ruling was 2-1 (the dissenter was Clinton-appointee Judge Chester Straub), and the second reason this ruling is so important is that Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote the majority opinion. Judge Jacobs is a very conservative judge and a favorite of the Federalist Society. As ThinkProgress notes:

He joined a court decision effectively declaring corporations immune to international human rights law — even when they “trade in or exploit slaves, employ mercenary armies to do dirty work for despots, perform genocides or operate torture prisons for a despot’s political opponents, or engage in piracy.” And he once gave a speech to the conservative Federalist Society decrying the “anti-social effects” of attorneys providing free legal services to the less fortunate.

This is the second Appeals court ruling striking down Section 3 of DOMA. The First Court of Appeals in Boston also “ruled last May against DOMA in two cases involving same-sex couples in Massachusetts. The U.S. Supreme Court may elect to consider all three of these cases sometime after the November election.

No Supreme Court Action on Prop 8, DOMA Cases; NOM’s Finance Disclosure Appeal Denied (Again)

Jim Burroway

October 1st, 2012

The orders page is out for today, with no mention of the Prop 8 case (Hollingsworth v. Perry) or the Defense of Marriage Act Challenge (Windsor v. US). Which means that the court has neither denied nor granted cert to review the cases. There is increasing speculation that the court may not take action on these cases until November when at least three more cases challenging DOMA will be available for review by the Justices.

There are two other LGBT related cases before the court. Diaz v. Brewer, challenging Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s attempt to withdraw domestic partner benefits from state employees. The court has taken no action on that case yet

But in National Organization for Marriage v. McKee, in which NOM is again trying to get the Supreme Court’s attention in its efforts to circumvent Maine’s finance disclosure laws, the supreme court denied NOM’s request for certiorari. The Supreme Court refused to hear an earlier similar challenge from NOM in February.

 

Supreme Court Declines Prop 8, DOMA Cases For Now

Jim Burroway

September 25th, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its Orders List (PDF: 136KB/10 pages) following yesterday’s conference session in which it was scheduled to consider whether to hear four LGBT-related cases. Today’s Order list indicates that the Supreme Court has agreed to accept six pending case, but the appeal of Hollingsworth v. Perry — the new name for Perry v. Brown, which itself was previously Perry v. Schwarzenegger, challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 — was not on the list.

It’s not clear yet though that this means that the Prop 8 case was rejected by the court. We won’t learn that until next Monday, when the Supreme Court will issue a list of cases it has decided not to hear this term. If Hollingsworth v. Perry is on that list, then the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision striking down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional will stand and California’s same-sex couples will have their marriage rights restored. But if Hollingsworth v. Perry is not on that list, then it means that the Supreme Court is still weighing whether to accept the case. It takes four justices to agree on hearing a case before it is accepted by the court.

The court also held off accepting the appeal of Windsor v. USA, which challenges the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. This case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behal of Edie Windsor, who is required to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes following the death of her legally-wedded wife in 2007. If she had been in an opposite-sex marriage, her estate tax bill would have been zero. Four other DOMA challenges are making their way through the Appeals courts, and the U.S. Department of Justice has asked the Supreme Court to hear three of those cases along with Windsor for a more comprehensive look at DOMA’s constitutionality.

The court has also, so far, declined to accept two other LGBT-related cases. In Diaz v. Brewer, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer cannot withdraw domestic parner benefits from state employees without violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause. And in National Organization for Marriage v. McKee, NOM is again trying to get the Supreme Court’s attention in its efforts to circumvent Maine’s finance disclosure laws. The Supreme Court refused to hear an earlier challenge from NOM in February.

Someone dropped a house on DOMA – again

Timothy Kincaid

June 6th, 2012

Okay by now it’s clear that DOMA is pretty much dead and it just doesn’t know it yet.

In the case of Edie Windsor, Federal Judge Barbara S. Jones has now informed the government that it cannot tax Windsor differently than any other widow. In Edie’s case, the ‘gay tax’ charged to her was $363,053.

When Edie’s wife died, Edie inherited her wife’s estate. Now normally, when a spouse inherits no inheritance tax is assessed. However, due to DOMA, gays get special treatment. We get the special right to pay more taxes than straight people (funny, anti-marriage conservatives never talk about this).

But Judge Jones said no. Nope. Nada. Nosireeee. No brainer.

As in “Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment is granted“.

Which makes this about, oh idunno, the fifth time that a Federal Judge has said that DOMA violated the US Constitution. And after that many whacks in the head by flying floorboards, it’s dead. Grab those shoes and look out for some really angry flying monkeys.

New York’s new role

Timothy Kincaid

July 26th, 2011

One of the consequences of marriage equality that doesn’t get much attention in the debate is the way in which it impacts a state’s involvement in lawsuits. And yet, this is no small matter.

States have rights. Constitutionally, our nation has divided its powers between issues of national concern (such as defense) and issues of state autonomy (such as licensing of professionals). Family law, including the criteria for marriage, has been traditionally considered to be the purview of the state while the role of the federal government has been primarily limited in this area to interstate conflicts or civil rights protections.

But the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is an exception. It presumes, in paragraph 3, that the federal government holds veto power over marriage and can – for any matter that impacts any federal program – replace the state’s criteria with its own. If the marriage criteria in Vermont doesn’t meet the approval of the Senator from Alabama or the Congressman from Mississippi, then by securing a bare majority of fellow legislators they can dictate to Vermont which of its citizens can be considered married for Social Security, taxation, and health care, and which are deemed by Alabama and Mississippi to be unworthy.

This encroachment into the territory of the states was likely in violation of the US Constitution from the start. But that didn’t really matter for so long as states were limiting marriage to opposite sex couples. Courts are not receptive to abstract victims or potential loss of theoretical rights; to present your case, you need to be an aggrieved party.

And when New York’s legislature enacted marriage equality, it became an aggrieved party. Having authorized same-sex marriages, the state not only assumed the burden of protecting these marriages, but became itself a victim of federal infringement through DOMA3, and assumed the burden of protecting itself.

Actually, New York is a bit unusual in that the state recognized – though through legal interpretation rather than legislation or judicial determination – out-of-state same-sex marriages prior to their vote. So there has been, for some time, a theoretical right (though perhaps not obligation) to protect such couples as were abiding in the state but married elsewhere. But the vote removed any ambiguity; marriage equality is now the public policy and interest of the state.

And so, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has begun to defend the state’s interests. In an amicus brief (pfd) filed in the case of Windsor v. United States, in which a widow was denied tax provisions granted to heterosexual widows, he said:

By refusing to recognize for federal purposes marriages that are valid under state law, DOMA intrudes on matters historically within the control of the States, and undermines and denigrates New York’s law designed to ensure equality of same-sex and different-sex married couples. Thus DOMA threatens basic principles of federalism. Moreover, it classifies and determines access to rights, benefits, and protections based on sexual orientation, and also based on sex.

Schneiderman’s also objects to the discrimination of New Yorkers on the basis of sexual orientation and sex, and those objections are important. That is an obligation of a state and the brief is valuable in that matter. But Windsor’s lawyers can defend her interests and do so competently.

Where Schneiderman’s argument is invaluable is where it is unique, it’s defense of its own interests.

But DOMA departs from the tradition of federal respect for the States’ definition of marriage, flatly rejecting the definition of marriage in New York and five other States and thereby elevating the choices of some States above those made by other States. In doing so, DOMA threatens “the constitutional equality of the states [that] is essential to the harmonious operation of the scheme upon which the Republic was organized.” Coyne v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559, 580 (1911).

As Schneiderman implies, some State’s criteria for marriage is being applied, and it isn’t New York’s. To elevate Alabama’s laws to a national status and impose them on New York is precisely the sort of concern that consumed the constitutional convention and the US Constitution was written specifically to negotiate to what extent the separate autonomous states would act as one. Even individual rights were an afterthought.

From that time forward, Congress could not grant itself authority over matters belonging to the states. These are matters of the states alone, and the role of the federal government, congressional or judicial, has been interstate disputes and protecting the rights of the individual against the state. But Congress overstepped its bounds, and New York has joined that small club of states who have a cause to complain.

This position echoes and reinforces the position taken by Martha Coakley, the Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in Commonweath v. HHS. Her lawsuit also seeks to defend the rights of Massachusetts to define the criteria for marriage for its citizens.

Politically, this issue is an area in which our opponents are awkward and in conflict. Long loud advocates for states’ rights and federalism and smaller centralized government, Republicans are uncomfortable talking about DOMA and its provisions. It is quite one thing to deny equality to gay people but the idea of championing the usurpation of a state right by Washington threatens not only party rhetoric, but a core principle which many Republicans hold dear.

Which is perhaps one reason why you don’t hear much from Congress or from party leadership in defense of DOMA. The presidential candidates, especially those who seem to be counting on the presumed stupidity of their base, try to simultaneously appeal to anti-gay prejudice and states right advocates by babbling nonsense about “respecting the decisions of the states” and also “supporting a constitutional amendment”.

But outside of the social-issue focused religious conservatives, you don’t hear many people defending the merits of DOMA. Even John Boehner, who has taken up the task of defending the law, talks more in terms of letting the courts rather than the President decide the law’s constitutionality and speaks only in the abstract about the nature of the law or defense of its merits. And even Texas Governor Rick Perry, a strong opponent to gay rights in Texas, surprised some conservatives with his take: (AP)

“Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex. And you know what? That’s New York, and that’s their business, and that’s fine with me,” he said to applause from several hundred GOP donors in Aspen, Colo. “That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business.”

Ultimately, there need be (and will be) a Supreme Court decision that finds that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by the federal, state, and other government is in conflict with the US Constitution. But now that more than ten percent of the nation’s citizens live with conflicting state and federal marriage criteria, it may be the violation of the Tenth Amendment upon which DOMA is decided.

Report: DOMA Law Firm Backs Out

Jim Burroway

April 25th, 2011

Politico’s Ben Smith says that King & Sanders, the law firm retained by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to represent the House in defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court, is extricating itself from its contact. K&S Chairman Robert D. Hays, Jr. issued a statement through its spokesman:

Today the firm filed a motion to withdraw from its engagement to represent the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives on the constitutional issues regarding Section III of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Last week we worked diligently through the process required for withdrawal.

In reviewing this assignment further, I determined that the process used for vetting this engagement was inadequate. Ultimately I am responsible for any mistakes that occurred and apologize for the challenges this may have created.

K&S Partner Paul Clement was to lead the defense in the case. It’s not clear exactly which issues didn’t pass muster with the Chairman. But given what we’ve learned about the blanket gag order imposed on all K&S employees barring all advocacy for DOMA’s legislative repeal (an issue which is not germane to the case itself), it does appear that the contract was very poorly vetted.

UPDATE: Clement has announced his resignation from K&S, and will  join Bancroft PLLC, a small Washington-based firm with former Bush Justice Department official Viet Dinh. I would not be surprised to encounter another announcement saying Bancroft will take up the case instead.

House To Spend $500K To Defend DOMA

Jim Burroway

April 20th, 2011

Paul Clement

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has announced that he has contracted with a law firm to defend the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in court, in response to the Obama Administration’s announcement that they consider DOMA’s defense as requiring heightened scrutiny. Former Bush Administration U.S. solicitor general Paul Clement was tapped to defend DOMA on behalf of the GOP-controlled House to the tune of $500,000, funds which Boehner says he will strip from the Justice Department’s budget.  Clement is a partner at the D.C.-based office for the firm King & Spalding where he manages the national appellate practice. Clement has argued more than 50 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Metro Weekly has looked into the contract Boehner signed with King & Spalding, which specifies the firm’s defense in Windsor v. United States.  That case was brought by Edith Windsor, the widow of Thea Spyer, who had to pay a $350,000 estate tax that she would not have had to pay had their Canadian marriage been recognized by the federal government. The contract sets a cap of $500,000 to defend DOMA in Windsor v. United States, but the contract has a provision which suggests that the cap can be raised. The contract does not authorize the hiring of outside experts without approval from the House. Metro Weekly noticed a non-discrimination clause in the contract:

It also is notable that the nondiscrimination clause in the contract states that King & Spalding “will not discriminate in its performance of this Agreement because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or any other prohibited basis.” Neither sexual orientation nor gender identity are included. This despite the fact that the firm clearly does include such categories in its own nondiscrimination policy.

DOMA is currently being challenged in at least twelve separate court cases around the country.

Boehner Announces Defense of DOMA

Jim Burroway

March 9th, 2011

TPM reports that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has issued a statement announcing that the House will intervene as a third party defendant in court cases challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. TPM quotes from the statement:

“Today, after consultation with the Bipartisan Leadership Advisory Group, the House General Counsel has been directed to initiate a legal defense of this law,” Boehner said in the statement. “This action by the House will ensure that this law’s constitutionality is decided by the courts, rather than by the President unilaterally.”

Of course, the president didn’t determine the law’s unconstitutionally unilaterally. The administration instead determined that they could not defend the law’s constitutionality based on the facts and heightened scrutiny. The administration also threw some bait in Boehner’s direction, pointing out that the House was perfectly within its rights to argue in court that that the law did not result in discrimination against LBGT couples. Boehner dropped the “only interested in the budget” charade to take the challenge. This should be fun.

The Hill reports that the action was taken based on a party line vote following a thirty-minute meeting, with Boehner joining House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) supporting the move. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) voted no.

Boehner to Announce DOMA Defense by Week’s End

Jim Burroway

February 28th, 2011

So much for focusing on the budget:

Asked if the House would appoint a special counsel to defend the law itself in the White House’s stead, Boehner said, “It’s an option being considered” and added that he would likely have a decision on how to proceed “by the end of the week.”

“I’d be very surprised if the House didn’t decide that they were going to defend the law,” Boehner said. Surprisingly, he suggested that the move was likely beneficial to Democrats in the next election.

House Speaker John Boehner also spoke to David Brody of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network over the weekend:

David Brody; “Rick Santorum says that the Speaker of the House should appoint a counsel representing the House of Representatives to take up the case and argue DOMA in federal court. Is that a good idea?”

Speaker John Boehner: “It’s an option being considered.”

David Brody: ”And on these options the bottom line is that something is going to happen from the House and something will get done?”

Speaker John Boehner: “I’d be very surprised if the House didn’t decide that they were going to defend law.”

David Brody: “How frustrated are you with this President? Do you believe it’s an overreach to the point where it gets back to the Czar issue to a degree?”

Speaker John Boehner: “It strikes me as something that’s just as raw politics as anything I’ve seen knowing that a lot of people who believe in DOMA are probably not likely to vote for him and pandering to the other side on this issue.”

Obama’s DOMA Strategy “Deep and Cynical”?

Jim Burroway

February 25th, 2011

Jason Kuznicki at the Cato Institute wrote, “Jim Burroway hints that Obama’s strategy here is both deep and cynical.” If there is a hint of that in what I wrote, then that hint was the furthest thing from my mind. Given the particular circumstances that arose in the two cases that brought about this announcement (specifically that there is no legal precedent in this particular circuit of Federal Court as to which level of scrutiny is appropriate for DOMA challenges), I think the administration’s determination is highly principled and well-supported, or, in Kuznicki’s word, “deep” (although he may have meant that differently than I do).

It does not, however, mean that there are no potential political repercussions emanating from the announcement, and my pointing them out was not based on a suspicion of a “cynical” motive. Surely, Holder did dangle a political carrot in front of Boehner (and, more broadly, in front of social conservatives who would surely urge Boehner to grab it) by pointing out that Congress can decide to defend DOMA. And there’s no doubt that most Democrats would strategically, if quietly, welcome just that very move, which would then be taken as evidence that the GOP isn’t serious about focusing exclusively on the deficit. — which would be the very definition of cynicism. But that latter part isn’t evidence of cynicism behind the Administration’s legal decision itself. It’s simply an observation that there are rippling repercussions from the decision; some of them are political and some of the political reactions will also be cynical — as if anyone would be surprised by that. I don’t mind Kuznicki’s putting the cart before the horse; he sees things differently from me. I would just rather he hadn’t tried to put my words in the horse’s mouth.

Will Obama’s DOMA Decision Backfire?

Jim Burroway

February 25th, 2011

That’s what Daily Beast’s Eve Conant and Daniel Stone seem to think after talking with ant-gay activists who see an opening in the Administration’s new stand on defending the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in the courts.

By failing to defend marriage, the administration may open the door for those passionately opposed to gay marriage to have what they feel they’ve been lacking: a stronger legal voice. In Massachusetts, which is also in the midst of a legal challenge to DOMA, traditional marriage activists, after the initial shock, are finding themselves equally emboldened. Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute says, “It’s a horrible situation when the president and the attorney general refuse to carry out their constitutional duties. We are now asking Congress to do its job.” But he says the law, in his view, “says that under unusual circumstances people who are friends of the court can participate in oral arguments.” Previously barred from doing so in the state’s key DOMA challenge, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, he says, his legal team is working on documents to take part in oral arguments “with real resources and with people who have a passion for success” in battling gay marriage. Mineau says the government’s defense of DOMA thus far “has amounted to something along the lines of ‘we’re personally against DOMA but we’re here today to defend it.’” That watered-down approach, he says, left traditional marriage supporters feeling hopeless.

If the Justice Department’s stand that DOMA should fall under heightened scrutiny holds sway in the courts, then groups like Massachusetts Family Institute with their impassioned position against same-sex marriage would actually prove the Administration’s case under one important aspect of heightened scrutiny: a history of discrimination. We already saw how well this played out so far in California, where widespread evidence of discrimination and expressions of anti-gay bigotry became important pivots on which Federal Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision rested.

On the other hand, Conant and Stone argue that the GOP-led House could try to take the case completely out of the DOJ’s hands altogether so that they would not even be present in court to argue for heightened scrutiny:

Committee lawyers have been summoned early next week to meet with Boehner and other officials to discuss their options. One leading strategy would be to stage a sort of legislative intervention, in which Congress’ counsel would remove the Justice Department’s authority to defend DOMA.

Administration officials aren’t opposed to that idea. In a letter to Boehner, Attorney General Eric Holder suggested Republican leaders appoint more lawyers to defend the law themselves, without Justice attorneys.

I see two potential problems here: If Congress were to intervene and remove DOJ’s authority to defend DOMA, wouldn’t the Democratic-controlled Senate have to go along with it? And secondly, as I read Attorney General Eric Holder’s letter, I don’t get the sense that he agrees that DOJ should be removed altogether from defending DOMA or that Republicans leaders should defend the law themselves “without Justice attorneys,” as if Justice would be willing to voluntarily step aside. “We will remain parties to the case and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation,” he clearly added, after acknowledging that Congress can play a role in defending the statute.

On DOMA, Social Conservatives Howl While Pols Shrug

Jim Burroway

February 25th, 2011

By virtually any measure, the Obama Administration’s announcement that they will no longer argue that the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” is constitutional portends a monumental shift, with repercussions we are all still trying to sort out. Anti-gay activists are, predictably, howling with rage, calling on Congress to intervene. But as we noted, House speaker John Boehner refused to take the bait, and is instead sticking to his promised focus on slashing the budget. The New York Times noticed similarly tepid reactions among many other political conservatives:

In the hours that followed, Sarah Palin’s Facebook site was silent. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was close-mouthed. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, released a Web video — on the labor union protests in Wisconsin — and waited a day before issuing a marriage statement saying he was “disappointed.”

Others, like Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, took their time weighing in, and then did so only in the most tepid terms. “The Justice Department is supposed to defend our laws,” Mr. Barbour said.

Asked if Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana and a possible presidential candidate, had commented on the marriage decision, a spokeswoman said that he “hasn’t, and with other things we have going on here right now, he has no plans.”

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is also believed to be a presidential contender, is among the few to come out strongly against the Administration’s decision, calling children being raised by LGBT parents “our little guinea pigs.” Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist for President Bush’s 2004 campaign which deployed marriage as a major wedge issue to turn out conservative voters, may well be right: “The wedge has lost its edge,” he told the Times. Of course, there’s still plenty of time for that to change between now and 2012.

DOMA: recap, summary, and analysis

Timothy Kincaid

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.

DOMA

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.

While GLAD has no certainty about how Gill is impacted, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (at least publicly) believes that the DOJ will drop their appeal of Commonwealth (Globe).

“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.

The Meaning of Obama’s DOMA Decision

Jim Burroway

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?

Justice Dept. Drops Defense of DOMA Lawsuits

Jim Burroway

February 23rd, 2011

The Justice Department today announced that they will no longer defend the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in two lawsuits that had recently been filed in Federal District Court challenging the law. 

In a letter sent to House speaker John Boehner, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that Section 3 of the statute which bars the federal government from recognizing legal marriages of same-sex couples is a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment. Holder wrote that in response the the lawsuit which had been filed recently (Windsor v. United States, No. 1:10-cv-8435 (S.D.N.Y.); Pedersen v. OPM, No. 3:10-cv-1750 (D. Conn.)). These lawsuits challenge whether sexual-orientation classifications are subject to rational basis review or whether they must satisfy some form of heightened scrutiny, which represents a new type of challenge:

Previously, the Administration has defended Section 3 in jurisdictions where circuit courts have already held that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject to rational basis review, and it has advanced arguments to defend DOMA Section 3 under the binding standard that has applied in those cases.

These new lawsuits, by contrast, will require the Department to take an affirmative position on the level of scrutiny that should be applied to DOMA Section 3 in a circuit without binding precedent on the issue.   As described more fully below, the President and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny and that, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under state law, Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.  

The administration and justice department determined that heightened scrutiny is appropriate for sexual orientation, citing three factors. The first is an acknowledgement that LGBT people have faced a history of discrimination, a position that is shared not just by LGBT advocates, but also by anti-gay activists who have defended the very nature of discrimination against LGBT people in the past. The second factor is a growing consensus that sexual orientation is immutable by outside factors for most people. But the third factor I found more interesting: it is based on historical and legal precedent:

…the adoption of laws like those at issue in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), and Lawrence, the longstanding ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and the absence of federal protection for employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation show the group to have limited political power and “ability to attract the [favorable] attention of the lawmakers.”   Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 445.   And while the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act and pending repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell indicate that the political process is not closed entirely to gay and lesbian people, that is not the standard by which the Court has judged “political powerlessness.”   Indeed, when the Court ruled that gender-based classifications were subject to heightened scrutiny, women already had won major political victories such as the Nineteenth Amendment (right to vote) and protection under Title VII (employment discrimination).  

Heightened scrutiny trumps “rational basis” in a very key way:

…under heightened scrutiny, the United States cannot defend Section 3 by advancing hypothetical rationales, independent of the legislative record, as it has done in circuits where precedent mandates application of rational basis review.   Instead, the United States can defend Section 3 only by invoking Congress’ actual justifications for the law.

Moreover, the legislative record underlying DOMA’s passage contains discussion and debate that undermines any defense under heightened scrutiny.   The record contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships – precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against.   See Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 448 (“mere negative attitudes, or fear” are not permissible bases for discriminatory treatment); see also Romer, 517 U.S. at 635 (rejecting rationale that law was supported by “the liberties of landlords or employers who have personal or religious objections to homosexuality”); Palmore v. Sidotti, 466 U.S. 429, 433 (1984) (“Private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect.”).  

The Justice Department will remain a party to the case, but will inform the court that heightened scrutiny is the appropriate standard for those cases. But it appears that Congress, if it so chooses, can intervene. “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.” But as to the DOJ’s participation in this and other cases before the Federal Court:

Furthermore, pursuant to the President’s instructions, and upon further notification to Congress, I will instruct Department attorneys to advise courts in other pending DOMA litigation of the President’s and my conclusions that a heightened standard should apply, that Section 3 is unconstitutional under that standard and that the Department will cease defense of Section 3.

Other pending DOMA cases include Gill v OPM and Commonwealth v HHS.

Click here to read the full letter from Attorney General Holder to House Speaker John Boehner

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