Obama ditches DOMA and other marriage equality news

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced yesterday that the Department of Justice will no longer defend Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in court. Section 3 defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman for federal purposes. It has been challenged in court multiple times, and last July a federal judge ruled the provision unconstitutional. The DOJ appealed that ruling, but Holder announced yesterday that President Barack Obama

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.

Consequently, the 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.

I've posted Holder's complete statement after the jump. It notes, "Much of the the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed DOMA." While some conservative commentators were outraged by the announcement, it's important to remember that the Obama administration hasn't stopped enforcing the DOMA despite the president's opinion of the law.

Linda Hirshman argues that Obama has laid a trap for Congressional Republicans, who will look foolish in federal court if and when they defend Section 3. I think she is way too optimistic that the federal appeals process will uphold last year's district court opinion. Hirshman and I may find the legal arguments supporting the DOMA weak, but it would not surprise me to see a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming the constitutionality of Section 3.

I was surprised to see so little Iowa reaction to Holder's announcement. The outcome of this federal litigation will affect thousands of legally married Iowa same-sex spouses, who would be eligible for some federal benefits if the law is struck down. As far as I know, Senator Chuck Grassley is the only Iowan in Congress to issue a statement on yesterday's news. He's the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he criticized the Obama administration's decision as "clearly based more on politics than the law." He stopped short of promising to help with the DOMA legal defense, but presumably Congressional Republicans who are attorneys will handle that. I posted Grassley's complete statement after the jump.

Republicans in the Iowa legislature continue to fight marriage equality. A constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman passed the Iowa House last month but will not reach the floor of the Iowa Senate. A short-lived legislative effort to legalize discrimination against married same-sex couples was backed by many Republicans and at least one Democrat, but House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rich Anderson tabled that bill before it received a subcommittee vote.

A new bill, House File 330, would prevent Iowa county recorders from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples "until such time as an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa defining marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman is submitted to the electorate for ratification." The same bill would block the Iowa Supreme Court from considering its constitutionality. There are some pretty big problems with that idea, though:

That outcome: Iowa families could appeal a recorder's decision in trial courts but those decisions would not be able to be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

It would make the lower courts ruling final and it would also set up the likelihood that Iowa would have pockets of the state were the law was recognized and others were it was thrown out.

"I think the result is that you would have a hodgepodge of rulings across the state," Bartrum said. "It would depend on whatever the local district judge thought because were would be no uniform appeal."

FRIDAY UPDATE: According to Troy Price of One Iowa, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen has communicated by e-mail that House File 330 is going nowhere. KCRG reports,

Top Republicans on Thursday said they have no plans to debate the issue, viewing it a nod to the party's social conservative wing. [...]

Backers say introducing the measure is one more opportunity to voice their displeasure with how the marriage issue has been handled.

Republican Rep. Betty De Boef says the issue has been handled badly and that some lawmakers want to take every opportunity to make that point.

In related news, Maryland is likely to become the sixth state to grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples. A bill on marriage equality is advancing in the Maryland Senate and has substantial support in that state's House of Delegates. Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Washington, DC has recognized same-sex marriages since December 2009. Some U.S. House Republicans are pushing a bill to reverse that policy. If a same-sex marriage ban for the nation's capital cleared the House and the U.S. Senate, Obama would probably veto it given his decision to stop defending DOMA.

Hawaii's new Democratic governor Neil Abercrombie signed a civil unions bill yesterday, bringing the number of states that recognize same-sex civil unions to seven. Republican Governor Linda Lingle vetoed a similar bill in Hawaii last year.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: The Washington Post reports,

Some opponents of same-sex marriage said the administration's decision could end up helping to preserve the law in court.

"The previous efforts of the Obama administration and DOJ to defend the law were so inadequate as to raise the suspicion that the Justice Department was deliberately throwing the case," said Robert George, a political science professor at Princeton University who opposes same-sex marriage. "Chances are the law will get a robust defense, and I suspect it will withstand constitutional scrutiny." [...]

In his letter to [House Speaker John] Boehner, Holder criticized portions of the congressional debate leading up to the law's passage, saying they had undermined the prospects for defending the measure. "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 that the Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against,'' Holder wrote.

Statement from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:

Department of Justice

Office of Public Affairs

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Statement of the Attorney General on Litigation Involving the Defense of Marriage Act

WASHINGTON - 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.

Consequently, the 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.

The Department has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of duly-enacted statutes if reasonable arguments can be made in their defense.   At the same time, the Department in the past has declined to defend statutes despite the availability of professionally responsible arguments, in part because - as here - the Department does not consider every such argument to be a "reasonable" one.   Moreover, the Department has declined to defend a statute in cases, like this one, where the President has concluded that the statute is unconstitutional.  

Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed DOMA.   The Supreme Court has ruled that laws criminalizing homosexual conduct are unconstitutional.   Congress has repealed the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.   Several lower courts have ruled DOMA itself to be unconstitutional.   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.

M E M O R A N D U M

TO:      Reporters and Editors

RE:      Administration announcement on DOMA

DA:     Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Senator Chuck Grassley, Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, issued the comment below about the Obama administration's announcement today that it no longer will defend the Defense of Marriage Act.

"Today's decision is clearly based more on politics than the law because numerous federal courts have upheld the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Given the substantial record in the courts and the administration's acknowledgement that arguments can be made to defend the law, it's hard to see how the announcement isn't simply a roundabout expression by the President of support for same-sex marriage, which he said during the campaign that he opposed.  I voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in Congress, which President Clinton signed into law, defining marriage as between one man and one woman and preventing states from being forced to honor the decisions of other state courts."

  • Why a hodge podge?

    A bill banning marriage licenses would be in direct violation of Varnum, wouldn't it?  So lower courts would be bound to uphold Varnum.  I don't see why there would be any other ruling.  

    The bigots seem to be begging activist judges to ignore the Supreme Court ruling, but they have forgotten how unlikely that is.  Also they forgot that they supposedly dislike activist judges.  They always want judges to "follow the law."  Well, Varnum is the law!

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