23 February 2011

Obama Concedes DOMA is Unconstitutional

Learning a lesson from the decision of California's leaders in the Prop 8 litigation, where the state refused to appeal a trial court finding that Prop 8 was unconstitutional (the standing of the ballot measure proponents to appeal in that case has been certified to the California Supreme Court), President Obama has directed the Department of Justice to stop defending the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. The Justice Department has said:

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: . . . 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. . . . [T]he Department will not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples in the two cases filed in the Second Circuit. We will, however, remain parties to the cases and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation. I have informed Members of Congress of this decision, so Members who wish to defend the statute may pursue that option. The Department will also work closely with the courts to ensure that Congress has a full and fair opportunity to participate in pending litigation.

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. . . .

Section 3 of DOMA will continue to remain in effect unless Congress repeals it or there is a final judicial finding that strikes it down, and the President has informed me that the Executive Branch will continue to enforce the law. But while both the wisdom and the legality of Section 3 of DOMA will continue to be the subject of both extensive litigation and public debate, this Administration will no longer assert its constitutionality in court.

Colorado's Attorney General, John Suthers, has filed an amicus brief arguing that the Courts should uphold the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that it does not directly impact state law, over the outraged protests of supporters of gay rights in Colorado.

Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act states that the federal government, when applying federal law, shall disregard legal state law marriages that are not between one man and one woman.

The key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act state that:

Section 2. Powers reserved to the states:

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. Definition of "marriage" and "spouse":

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 decision does not by itself affect Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act which provides that the full faith and credit clause of the United States Constitution does not extend to same sex marriages. Thus, state, local, territorial and Indian tribe governments are not federally required to honor same sex marriages that are valid in other states.

Will President Obama's Position Be Sustained In the Courts?

President Obama's decision is likely to stick. Generally, the only parties with standing to participate in a case where a same sex couple alleges that their rights have been violated by Section 3 of DOMA are the federal government and the couple(s) bringing the lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court, particularly in recent years, has construed taxpayer standing (alleging the federal funds are used for an unconstitutional purpose) and citizen standing (alleging that the federal government is acting unconstitutionally) very narrowly.

I'll have to look later at the standing of members of Congress to speak for the federal government in litigation or intervene in lawsuits attacking the constitutionality of a statute. The general rule is that the Justice Department is the sole representative of the U.S. position. But, federal courts have the authority, although not necessarily the obligation, to appoint a lawyer to argue for a position like that constitutionality of a law or the rights of pro se parties, that is not represented by a party in court.

To speak for Congress, per se, or even one house of Congress, would ordinarily require the passage of a resolution by Congress or at least a house of Congress. But, members of Congress who sponsored or voted for legislation might be viewed by a court as suitable intervenors to argue to a court for a position that no party to the suit is willing to advance.

An IRS ruling last year holding that domestic partners in California were entiteld to split income for federal income tax purposes due to community property principles foreshadowed the changing position of the Obama administration on this issue.


From a practical perspective, some of the main consequences of the decision are that gay married couples can file tax returns with married filing jointly status (and receive all of the benefits of married couples for estate taxation purposes), that same sex married couples qualify for federal immigration law treatment of spouses, and that same sex married couples can receive Social Security survivors benefits and spousal Veteran's benefits. The Veteran's benefits issue looms large now that Congress has repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law.

Also, while not quite spelled out by this ruling, the implication seems to be that a same sex couple that is legally married in any state will thereafter be treated as married by the federal government, even if the state in which they live does not recognize same sex marriage. Since some states do recognize same sex marriage (and allow non-residents to be married in their state), that means that same sex couples that go to those states to be married and then return to their home states can receive all of the federal government benefits of marriage.

In addition to undermining the efforts of state governments to deny federal benefits of marriage to same sex couples in their own states, the determination also increases the stakes in the civil union v. gay marriage debate in the states. Until now, this has been a strictly symbolic debate. A civil union bill (SB 11-172) that creates as the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage under state law, but doesn't call it marriage (such as one pending in the Colorado General Assembly right now) would not constitute marriage under federal law, while one that calls the relationship marriage would have that effect.

Thus, states are left with multiple options including: (1) disallow both civil unions and same sex marriages, but acknowledge that couples with legal sex sex marriages from other states may receive federal treatment as married, (2) allow civil unions but not same sex marriage, which gives copules state law marriage rights but denies couples federal treatment as married until they get legally married in another state, or (3) allow same sex marriage.

Also, while Section 2 of DOMA does not require states to recognize same sex marriages from other states, it also does not prohibit them from doing so out of comity. In many states, the issue of when comity should recognize other state's legal acts when the full faith and credit clause of the United States Constitution does not require it has been left to the courts rather than being made a subject of legislation. Thus, judges could choose, influenced but not bound by the Section 3 of DOMA interpretation, to honor out of state same sex marriage even though the constitution and federal law do not require them to do so.

Civil unions have been a sensible legislative objective for same sex couples in many states, like Colorado, where the state constitution has been amended to prohibit same sex marriage, but not more broadly to prohibit civil unions or domestic partnerships of same sex couples as well. But, there will be increasing pressure to actually call this marriage legislatively, and as courts evaluate the issue.