The Attorney General made the following statement today about the Department’s course of action in two lawsuits, Pedersen v. OPM and Windsor v. United States, challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage for federal purposes as only between a man and a woman:
In the two years since this Administration took office, the Department of Justice has defended Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act on several occasions in federal court. Each of those cases evaluating Section 3 was considered in jurisdictions in which binding circuit court precedents hold that laws singling out people based on sexual orientation, as DOMA does, are constitutional if there is a rational basis for their enactment. While the President opposes DOMA and believes it should be repealed, the Department has defended it in court because we were able to advance reasonable arguments under that rational basis standard.
Section 3 of DOMA has now been challenged in the Second Circuit, however, which has no established or binding standard for how laws concerning sexual orientation should be treated. In these cases, the Administration faces for the first time the question of whether laws regarding sexual orientation are subject to the more permissive standard of review or whether a more rigorous standard, under which laws targeting minority groups with a history of discrimination are viewed with suspicion by the courts, should apply.
After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny. The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases. I fully concur with the President’s determination.
Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic:
The announcement by the Justice Department came just minutes before White House press secretary Jay Carney’s regular briefing. Carney took care to press upon reporters that the president’s personal view about DOMA — that it is unfair to gays and lesbians — is distinct from the decision. The announcement from the administration came because of a court-imposed deadline from the 2nd Circuit.
Carney also said that the U.S. government will still be a party to these cases to allow the courts to make a recommendation about constitutionality and to allow other interested parties, such as Congress, to defend the law if they wish.
“We recognize and respect that there are other points of view,” Carney said.
The decision means the Justice Department will cease to defend two suits brought against the law. The first was a summary judgment issued in Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services last May by the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. The plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the law’s definition of “marriage” as a legal union between a man and a woman.
District Judge Joseph Louis Tauro ruled Section 3 of the act unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated states’ rights to set their own marriage policies and violated the rights of same-sex couples in the states that permitted marriages. But the president felt compelled to defend the law, reasoning that Congress had the ability to overturn it. The Justice Department entered into an appeal process on October 12, 2010. Tauro stayed implementation of his own ruling pending the appeal. The department filed its defense in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit on January 14.
The second lawsuit, involving the cases of Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management and Windsor v. United States, would have been appealed in the Appeals Court for the 2nd Circuit, which has no established standard for how to treat laws concerning sexual orientation.
The president has won favor with the gay community recently by pushing for and winning repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military, which the lame-duck Congress passed in December. At that time, Obama reiterated his support for repealing DOMA but did not take further steps.
Matt Welch at Reason:
The law is still in effect, but probably lost whatever chance it had of surviving a legal challenge. You can read Holder’s letter here.
Reason on DOMA here, including this piece from 1996 by Nick Gillespie. Excerpt:
It is a misguided attempt to define for all time an institution that is constantly, if slowly, evolving. Its supporters may think they can stop social evolution in its tracks and enforce a singular vision of the good society. But such people misunderstand the very nature of a free society and its dependence on choice and change. The Defense of Marriage Act may well have put off state recognition of same-sex marriage for the time being, but such laws can do precious little to keep things as they are. There can be little doubt that, ultimately, the government will be following IBM’s lead, even as IBM has followed its employees’.
William C. Duncan at The Corner:
There is something about the marriage issue that provokes an “any means necessary” approach from its proponents (among whom I believe we can count the president, notwithstanding campaign rhetoric to the contrary).
The president’s strategy, however distasteful, could be successful. In almost every successful same-sex-marriage case so far, the attorneys charged with defending the marriage laws either refused to do so (Iowa, Northern District of California) or made only pro forma defenses while conceding key points to the pro-redefinition side (Connecticut, California Supreme Court). Whether it is a good thing to have key social policies decided by lawyer inaction is an important question.
Presumably Congress can seek to intervene in the DOMA suits in order to defend the law. Maybe the federal courts need a public-defender program for statutes that have fallen out of favor with the elites in power.
It’s worth noting that when Judge Walker struck down California’s Proposition 8 last year, he used to lower “rational basis” test. Nonethless, Holder’s arguments in the letter are very similar to those Walker used in his opinion, and I won’t be surprised to see parts of this letter show up in appellatte briefs down the line as persuasive authority.
Personally, I think the entire act is unconstitutional, an opinion that is also shared by Bob Barr, who introduced the Act when he was a Member of Congress in the 1990s:
I’ve wrestled with this issue for the last several years and come to the conclusion that DOMA is not working out as planned. In testifying before Congress against a federal marriage amendment, and more recently while making my case to skeptical Libertarians as to why I was worthy of their support as their party’s presidential nominee, I have concluded that DOMA is neither meeting the principles of federalism it was supposed to, nor is its impact limited to federal law.
In effect, DOMA’s language reflects one-way federalism: It protects only those states that don’t want to accept a same-sex marriage granted by another state. Moreover, the heterosexual definition of marriage for purposes of federal laws — including, immigration, Social Security survivor rights and veteran’s benefits — has become a de facto club used to limit, if not thwart, the ability of a state to choose to recognize same-sex unions.
Even more so now than in 1996, I believe we need to reduce federal power over the lives of the citizenry and over the prerogatives of the states. It truly is time to get the federal government out of the marriage business. In law and policy, such decisions should be left to the people themselves.
In 2006, when then-Sen. Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, he said, “Decisions about marriage should be left to the states.” He was right then; and as I have come to realize, he is right now in concluding that DOMA has to go. If one truly believes in federalism and the primacy of state government over the federal, DOMA is simply incompatible with those notions.
The other problem with DOMA is that it essentially tells couples living in states where same-sex marriage, or civil unions, are legal that they can only live in states where the law is the same, or where their marriage will be recognized, which at this point constitutes less than 1/4 of the United States. It means a couple married in Iowa cannot move to any state in the American south without giving up all of their legal rights. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Full Faith And Credit Clause was designed to prevent. In fact, under current law, a marriage between a man and a woman that may not be legal in one state — such as a marriage between first cousins — will still be recognized as legal since it was legal under the laws of the state in which it took place. There is no rational reason why the individual liberty of gays and lesbians should be restricted in this manner.
Bryan Preston at PJ Tatler:
Does a president have the power to unilaterally declare laws passed by Congress and signed by his predecessors “unconstitutional?” This strikes me as setting an extremely dangerous precedent.
This, by the way, is a good example why I’ve never joined in the general condemnation of conservatives for “reigniting the culture wars” whenever they introduce an abortion bill or somesuch. I’m on the opposite side of these conservative efforts, of course, but the fact is that liberals started the culture wars in the 60s and it’s something we should be proud of. So while I oppose the conservative side of the culture wars, I approve of the culture wars in general, and I applaud Obama and Holder for reigniting it last year when Congress repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for reigniting it in the case of DOMA today. Blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, the disabled and millions of others have benefited tremendously from the culture wars, and I’m happy to see it continue until there’s no more war to fight.