BREAKING: Obama thinks Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional, won’t defend it

This is welcome news from the Obama administration. Finally, some really fierce advocacy. The President thinks Section 3 of DOMA, which DOJ has been defending up until now, is unconstitutional — and the Obama administration will no longer defend that section of the law in the courts. This is HUGE.

Section 3 is the portion of DOMA that limits federal marriage benefits to opposite-sex married couples. There are over 1,000 such benefits at the federal level, from social security to tons of other health care benefits, tax benefits, and more.

The following excerpts are the main provisions of the Act:

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 other portion of DOMA deals with ensuring that one state isn’t forced to recognize another state’s marriage of a gay couple – today’s decision by the President doesn’t affect that, but I’m not sure the issue is even ripe yet.

Note that we were one of the first to write about the fact that the President did not have to defend DOMA. Former Clinton White House official, and now head of Equality Matters, Richard Socarides wrote on this blog, on June 14, 2009:
I was equally troubled by the administration’s explanation that they had no choice but to defend the law. As an attorney and as someone who was directly involved in giving advice on such matters to another president (as a Special Assistant for civil rights to President Bill Clinton), I know that this is untrue.

No matter what the president’s personal opinion, administration officials now tell us that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) must defend the laws on the books, and must advance all plausible arguments in doing so. Thus, the theory goes, the DOJ was just following the normal rules in vigorously defending the anti-gay law.

I know and accept the fact that one of the Department of Justice’s roles is to (generally) defend the law against constitutional attack. But not in all cases, certainly not in this case – and not in this way. To defend this brief is to defend the indefensible.

From my experience, in a case where, as here, there are important political and social issues at stake, the president’s relationship with the Justice Department should work like this: The president makes a policy decision first and then the very talented DOJ lawyers figure out how to apply it to actual cases. If the lawyers cannot figure out how to defend a statute and stay consistent with the president’s policy decision, the policy decision should always win out.

Thus, the general rule that the DOJ must defend laws against attack is relative – like everything in Washington.

Some said we were wrong. It turns out, we were right. All the pressure – your pressure – mattered. We won because you didn’t give up.

I am posting the full statement from the Department of Justice:

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.

More to come.

Here’s the letter from the Attorney General to Speaker Boehner, as required by 28 U.S.C. § 530D, indicating that the administration will not defend Section 3 of DOMA:
DOJ Letter to Speaker Boehner on DOMA http://d1.scribdassets.com/ScribdViewer.swf

And here is previous DOJ correspondence to the Hill, dated 1996, explaining various cases in which the administration either enforced a law while refusing to defend it in court, and cases in which the administration also refused to enforce the law at all. The question remains whether the administration will continue to enforce DOMA – i.e., refuse to provide benefits to the spouses of gay federal employees. The administration has the option to provide those benefits now that they believe the law unconstitutional. But they’ve already said they will continue to enforce the law – that’s one dark lining to today’s cloud:

“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.”

hatch (2) http://d1.scribdassets.com/ScribdViewer.swf


On October 27, 2010, Joe was one of five bloggers who interviewed President Obama. Joe is a DC-based political consultant with over twenty-five years of experience at both the state and federal level. Joe has managed political operations and legislative efforts for both candidates and issues-based organizations. For seven years, he was the Director of State Legislation at Handgun Control, Inc. He served as that organization's first Political Director during the 2000 cycle. Joe is a graduate of the University of Maine School of Law. In addition, he has a Masters in Public Administration from Lehigh University and received his B.A. from the University of New Hampshire. Joe also has a fun dog, Petey, a worthy successor to Boomer, who got Joe through eight years of Bush and Cheney. Joe likes to think he is a world class athlete having finished the 2005 Chicago Marathon in the time of 4:10. He has completed six other marathons as well -- and is still determined to break the four hour mark.

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