By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
The Obama administration will no longer defend the central provision of the 1996 law that prevents the federal government from providing marriage-based benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
In announcing the new stance on Wednesday (Feb. 23), Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the government has concluded that all anti-gay laws should be subject to “heightened scrutiny” in the courts. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), now being challenged in federal cases in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, cannot meet that standard, Holder said.
The government’s call for heightened scrutiny, if adopted by courts, could doom other anti-gay laws, including the bans on same-sex marriages on the books in some 40 states.
Gay rights groups hailed the administration’s move, which Holder said was personally approved by President Obama. Evan Wolfson, president of the New York City-based Freedom to Marry, praised Obama and Holder “for acknowledging that sexual orientation discrimination has no place in American life and must be presumed unconstitutional.”
Laws such as DOMA “must be looked at with looked at with skeptical eyes, not rubber-stamped,” Wolfson said.
The government announced the position in advance of filings due March 11 in the two most recent challenges to DOMA in federal district courts in Connecticut and New York. For appellate purposes, those two states are both in the Second Circuit. Plaintiffs in those cases, legally married in their home states, say DOMA prevents the federal government from providing them specified financial benefits, such as tax breaks available to other married couples, Social Security benefits and employee health benefits.
The government had previously defended the constitutionality of DOMA in a case filed in Massachusetts, which is in the First Circuit. In that case, a district court judge in July 2010 ruled the law unconstitutional.
The government adopted the new position, Holder explained, because the Second Circuit, unlike the First, has no binding precedent on what standard of review to apply to laws that treat gays and lesbians differently from other people. With the government forced to address the issue for the first time, Holder said, “the President and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny.”
The Massachusetts case is currently pending before the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The First Circuit applies a relaxed “rational basis” test to laws aimed at gays and lesbians. In his ruling in July, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro said DOMA could not satisfy that test because it serves no legitimate government purpose.
Holder announced the new position in a statement as well as in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner. The Justice Department is required to notify Congress whenever it concludes that it will not follow the normal practice of defending a law in court despite policy disagreements with the measure.
In the letter, Holder said that laws based on sexual orientation meet four established criteria for triggering heightened scrutiny when challenged in court. Gays and lesbians, he said, have suffered a “significant history of purposeful discrimination,” both by government and private entities. In addition, Holder said sexual orientation is now widely recognized as an “immutable” characteristic, that gays and lesbians have “limited political power” and that sexual orientation “bears no relation to ability to perform or contribute to society.”
Holder said the government will notify the First Circuit of its new position. The notification to Congress affords lawmakers or others the opportunity to take steps to defend the law in court if they want. Boehner’s office had no immediate response to the move.
The new stance could affect the government’s defense of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in military. That policy remains in effect despite the law approved by Congress and signed by Obama in late December that calls for it to be repealed after a specified certification by Obama, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A federal judge in California ruled the policy unconstitutional in October; the government appealed the case to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, which refused the government’s request last month to put the case on hold while awaiting the Pentagon review.
By Kenneth Jost