Posts Tagged As: Commonwealth v HHS

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

The DOJ’s buddies – Part I

Timothy Kincaid

January 27th, 2011

There is an old saying that you are known by the company you keep. So the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice must be mortified by who has filed amicus briefs in support of their defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

In July, 2010, First Circuit Federal Court Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act violated the constitutional rights of states to define marriage and of the rights of same-sex couples to have their legal marriages recognized. This ruling did not touch on rights outside of Massachusetts.

The Department of Justice appealed that decision and are arguing for the constitutionality of Congress to deny rights based on sexual orientation. They are joined by a Who’s Who of anti-gay activists such as National Organization for Marriage, NARTH and the Eagle Forum.

Considering that the administration officially wishes to repeal DOMA – or at least that portion found unconstitutional – the decision to defend DOMA is one of legal principle (though I’m not convinced of its necessity) that then of ideology. So, sensing that no one from the DOJ is likely to stand on the table and scream, “they’re filthy sinners full of perversion and disease who are defying God and should be punished,” they have plenty of friends to make that point for them.

GLAD, who is arguing the Gill case on the side of equality, had collected these amicus briefs on their website for your perusal and delight. But, on the off chance that you may not find defense of discrimination and heterosexual superiority to be delightful – or that you may not wish to lose your lunch – I’ll give you a synopsis and save you the effort.

The National Organization for Marriage was the first out of the gate. In an argument that surely would have impressed George Orwell, they declare that allowing the states to define marriage – as they have always done – would be a violation of the Tenth Amendment.

Whatever the origin of the misunderstanding of the scope of the Tenth Amendment, the court below turned the Tenth Amendment on its head. Rather than protecting against federal usurpation of powers reserved to the states, the ruling below would allow each state to impose its own definition of marriage on the federal government in a sort of reverse Supremacy Clause.

Well, I’ll say that at least it is a novel argument.

They ramble a bit about censuses and other matters under federal definition, but basically they call for a newspeak approach to federalism whereby it is best achieved by centralized federal control. Listing all of the ways in which the federal government violates the rights of same-sex couples, they present this as evidence of the government’s right to do so. They rant about bigamy and Think of the Children. This was not their best effort.

The certified hate group, Family Research Council, was up next. Nothing new or interesting here, just the same ol’ “no strict scrutiny required” and “them homos in’t got no rights”. But I’ll give Tony and crew props for perhaps the single most meaningless sentence ever entered into public record:

And no court has ever held that marriage, traditionally understood, extends to same-sex couples. [emphasis in original]

George I. Goverman, “a citizen and resident of Massachusetts and a member of the bar of the Commonwealth since 1970”, chimed in to bring up Baker v. Nelson. Perhaps he intended to file his amicus with Perry, but got confused.

He also has a unique presentation style; his argument is in Times New Roman but for case references he appears to have selected an Arial italics font. They are also different font size and don’t quite line up, leaving a rather jarring effect.

But having read countless “procreative activity” amici during Perry, this peculiar presentation was not quite enough to keep me interested. I was, however, amused that he appealed to George Orwell at his conclusion. I guess he didn’t read NOM’s paper.

Judge Roy Moore (of Ten Commandments fame) was here with his Foundation for Moral Law to “defend the unalienable right to acknowledge God as the moral foundation of our laws.”

After he informed the court that “the views of the American people as a whole from the beginning of American history through the present, have held that homosexual conduct has always been and continues to be immoral and should not be protected or sanctioned by law,” I assume that the judge will just toss this one on the pile marked “raging loons.” It seems that Moore hasn’t read a poll or opened a newspaper in the past decade or so.

But I hope the court does read Moore’s rantings. For this paragraph, if for no other:

From Biblical law and other ancient law, through English and American common law and organic law, to recent times, homosexual conduct has been abhorred and opposed; the idea of a “marriage” based on such conduct never even entered the legal mind until very recent times. Congress’s passage of the federal definition of marriage in DOMA had the force of that history behind it and several present-day interests that were asserted when DOMA was enacted in 1996, such as an interest in defending marriage and an interest in defending traditional notions of morality.

The Supreme Court has found that defending “traditional notions of morality” is not an adequate reason for enacting law. In fact, to do so would be to invite judicial rejection.

So it is definitely to our advantage to remind the court that the sole purpose of anti-gay laws – including anti-marriage laws – is based in a desire on the part of one segment of society to impose their religious beliefs upon others. It also helps that Moore quotes the Bible about abominations and such and makes a bestiality comparison. I’m surprised he didn’t channel Jonathan Edwards.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Judge Moore for writing in and making it perfectly clear that opposition to same-sex marriage is based in religious doctrine, antipathy to gay people, and – at least in your case – baldfaced bigotry.

Why the Obama Administration Must Appeal DOMA Rulings

Jim Burroway

July 10th, 2010

I know. That headline is heresy. But there’s the thing: the two rulings declaring the “Defense of Marriage Act” unconstitutional only apply to Massachusetts. It’s a great win for LGBT couples living in the Bay State, but it’s meaningless everywhere else.

As it stands, there are only three ways to get rid of DOMA nationwide. Barring appeals by Obama’s Department of Justice, the first option is to get another forty-nine sets of similar rulings by federal judges in forty-nine more states. While it’s true that these Massachusetts rulings would serve as a precedent for subsequent rulings by other federal judges, those judges aren’t bound by them in the same way they would be a Supreme Court ruling. So the practical message the Obama administration would be sending if they chose not to appeal this case would be, “Congratulations, now go win 49 more. (And keep going if you want D.C., Puerto Rico and the other territories.)” I just don’t see that happening.

The second option is to overturn DOMA in Congress. I think that would be the preferable solution, but we know how controversial that would be. As archaic as everyone thought anti-sodomy laws were, they were still in force in 14 states just seven years ago before Lawrence v. Texas finally struck them down. Hate crimes legislation and repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are also non-controversial according to public opinion polls, but we still see how difficult that has proven to be in the most LGBT-friendly Congress in history. We hardly need to remind ourselves that same-sex marriage is in a whole different league of contentiousness, as every single public referendum on the issue has painfully shown us time and time again. With the next Congress likely to be much more hostile to LGBT issues as this Congress, I’ve got lottery tickets with better odds than Congress repealing DOMA.

So that leaves the U.S. Supreme Court as the best option. Not a great option, but the best one. The path is still tricky, and it’s unclear how a majority might be put together to support these decisions. But these decisions are the marker against which future appeals will be decided, and that will happen only if those appeals are heard. The next step is the 1st Court of Appeals, then the Supreme Court, with the hope that the Supreme Court agrees to hear the cases should the Appeals Court overturn the lower court’s decisions. This could be Bowers vs. Harwick all over again, or it could be another Lawrence. But wherever it goes, the train has left the station. We’re either on board or not.

Update (Jul 11): Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the folks behind Gill v OPM has released a thorough set of FAQs (PDF: 264KB/8 pages) answering many of the questions asked by BTB readers in comments.

Defense of Marriage Act Declared Unconstitutional

Jim Burroway

July 8th, 2010

We have just received word that a Federal Court Judge has ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

According to a press release issued by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD):

This afternoon, a federal court judge issued a decision in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders’ lawsuit challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

The judge also issued a decision in Commonwealth v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s lawsuit challenging Section 3 of DOMA, which is separate from GLAD’s lawsuit and based on a different legal theory.

 One Tweet has it that GLAD’s case was decided on “equal protection principles.” Of course, we eagerly await the text of the ruling itself, which I presume will not be in the form of thousands of tweets.

This is an important first step in the long slog to the Supreme Court. Given that the U.S. Justice Department is likely to appeal the ruling, it’s unclear what immediate affect this ruling might have.

Update 1: Bay Windows has more information:

In one challenge brought by the state of Massachusetts, Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that Congress violated the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it passed DOMA and took from the states decisions concerning which couples can be considered married. In the other, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, he ruled DOMA violates the equal protection principles embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Both cases were argued separately last May, although both decisions were handed down simultaneously today. Bay Windows notes that this is an extremely quick turn for a decision like this.

Update 2: Reporter Rex Wocknoer sent out this key snippet from the Commonwealth vs US HHS decision:

This court has determined that it is clearly within the authority of the Commonwealth to recognize same-sex marriages among its residents, and to afford those individuals in same-sex marriages any benefits, rights, and privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of their marital status. The federal government, by enacting and enforcing DOMA, plainly encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state, and, in doing so, offends the Tenth Amendment. For that reason, the statute is invalid.

Update2  3 and 4: The Gill decision has been uploaded here. The Commonwealth decision is here. I’m pretty busy right now, so feel free to discuss them in the comments.

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