Integrity Legal

24th Feb 2011

It recently came to this blogger’s attention that the Attorney General of the United States, apparently at the request of the President, has opted to discontinue pursuing cases that would enforce the provisions of section 3 of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA). To quote directly from a letter written from United States Attorney General Eric Holder to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives the Attorney General noted:

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 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 Windsor and Pedersen, now pending in the Southern District of New York and the District of Connecticut. I concur in this determination.

The administration of this blog highly recommends that those reading this posting click on the links above to read the Attorney General’s actual letter to Congress regarding this matter. That said, the administration of President Barack Obama should be guardedly commended for their position on this controversial and important matter. This announcement could be a boon to the LGBT community and the unfortunate same sex bi-national couples who are separated due to the fact that there has yet to be passage of legislation such as the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) which would circumvent DOMA and thereby allow those persons married to someone of the same sex to petition for immigration benefits in the same manner as their different sex counterparts. Bearing that in mind, there are some who could argue that the administration’s position on the issue could cause some unanticipated problems for those who wish to see swift equalization of rights for the LGBT Community, at least in the short term. Such an argument could be based upon the fact that failure to pursue these cases could lead to a situation where the public is unable to get the issue before the Supreme Court (more analysis on this below). To continue quoting from the Attorney General’s letter to Congress:

Notwithstanding this determination, the President has informed me that Section 3 will continue to be enforced by the Executive Branch. To that end, the President has instructed Executive agencies to continue to comply with Section 3 of DOMA, consistent with the Executive’s obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, unless and until Congress repeals Section 3 or the judicial branch renders a definitive verdict against the law’s constitutionality. This course of action respects the actions of the prior Congress that enacted DOMA, and it recognizes the judiciary as the final arbiter of the constitutional claims raised.

As noted in the first sentence of this above cited paragraph, the administration’s decision not to pursue Federal cases to block recognition of same sex marriages could theoretically stall efforts at ultimate recognition of same sex marriage in the Courts. The reason for this is based upon the fact that Courts can only “make new law” when there is a “case or controversy” pending before them. The President’s failure to pursue such cases could effectively blunts efforts to get same sex marriages recognized in the Courts. To put it simply: a case involving the issue of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) can only get before an Appellate Court (including the Supreme Court) if the party that lost in the lower court brings an appeal. Where the Obama administration has stated that they have changed their position on the issue of judicial scrutiny of same sex couples the fact still remains that in order for the Courts to render a final decision on the issue, a case must be properly brought before them. The Holder letter went on to note:

We will remain parties to the case and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation.

Interpretation of this line of the letter is critical for the future of same sex marriage cases pending before the Courts because the Obama administration (or a later administration, for that matter) may be placed in a position in which they are forced to appeal against a ruling in favor of same sex couples in order for the issue to be brought to the official attention of the higher Courts (most especially the United States Supreme Court). Failure on the part of the Obama administration to pursue the government’s current position in favor of DOMA all the way to the Supreme Court could lead to a situation, not unlike that once seen in the cases involving the old Widow’s Penalty in an immigration context, where same sex marriage is ruled legal in, say, the Second Circuit, but might not be legalized across the United States if the Attorney General’s office refuses to request certiorari from the United States Supreme Court and simply opts to accept the 2nd Circuit’s ruling.

At the same time, the administration is not actively involved in efforts to discourage recognition of same sex marriages. From a political standpoint, the President’s apparent decision to discontinue pursuit of such cases is rather shrewd in that, as noted in the last sentence of the paragraph cited above, it allows the administration to avoid something of a “political hot potato” without actually doing anything that might offend those arrayed against the recognition of same sex marriage. Meanwhile, as a practical matter, the administration’s decision changes nothing about the current state of affairs with regard to same sex marriage. In fact, if the administration refuses to appeal such cases to the Supreme Court, they would effectively close off one of the two avenues by which DOMA could be overturned (the other being outright repeal by the US Congress). The Defense of Marriage Act remains “on the books” and therefore continues to be an impediment to Federal recognition of same sex marriage (even those solemnized and legalized by the States).

From this blogger’s perspective, the administration appears to be attempting to make efforts in support of the LGBT community on the issue of same sex marriage, but in reality the two branches of government that can truly make a change to the current Federal policy on same sex marriage are the legislative branch of government and the judiciary. At present, two significant cases are pending in the judicial system. One case in California attacks DOMA from more of a civil right’s perspective while the Massachusetts Federal District Court found DOMA unconstitutional based upon, among other things, an analysis of that State’s (or more accurately: Commonwealth’s) inherent right to solemnize and legalize marriages within their jurisdiction. To quote directly from the opinion in the Massachusetts case:

State control over marital status determinations predates the Constitution. Prior to the American Revolution, colonial legislatures, rather than Parliament, established the rules and regulations regarding marriage in the colonies. And, when the United States first declared its independence from England, the founding legislation of each state included regulations regarding marital status determinations.

Many analyze this issue from the perspective of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. There is a very valid argument that discriminating against same sex couples due to their gender/sexual orientation is a violation of Equal Protection. However, the argument in favor of the States’ inherent rights to make rules and regulations regarding marriages within their jurisdiction is a potent argument which should not be overlooked. Equal Rights for the LGBT community is a Civil Rights matter, but where 6 Sovereign States and the District of Columbia have taken the initiative and allowed same sex unions it begs the question: why is the Federal government contravening clear State policy on matters that have traditionally been within the exclusive bailiwick of the States?

This blogger has repeatedly written postings analyzing the issue of same sex marriage from the perspective of States’ Rights as well as Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution. What is the most interesting aspect of this issue from the blogger’s perspective is the fact that the more socially conservative wing of the Supreme Sourt could end up voting in favor a same sex marriage based upon a States’ Rights line of thought. To quote directly from the dissenting opinion written by Justice Scalia in the Lawrence v. Texas case (which both the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and Justice Thomas joined):

If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is “no legitimate state interest” for purposes of proscribing that conduct, ante, at 18; and if, as the Court coos (casting aside all pretense of neutrality), “[w]hen sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring,” ante, at 6; what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising “[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution,” ibid.? Surely not the encouragement of procreation, since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry.

All of the Justices noted above dissented in the Lawrence opinion based upon the reasoning that the States’ retain the right to regulate homosexual conduct within their jurisdiction. The Court itself went the other way in that decision, but the above citation from the dissent is important because it shows that those Justices might rule favorably upon an issue involving Federal recognition of same sex marriage if the underlying facts were to show that the State sovereign had duly recognized such unions pursuant to their aforementioned “police powers” noted in the Massachusetts case cited above.

As of yet, these issues remain to be resolved, but one thing is clear: the political winds are changing with regard to LGBT rights. However, said rights have yet to be fully secured and until such time as they are advocates for equal marriage rights should continue to monitor this issue.

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