Lawmakers to file DOMA repeal Wednesday

Federal District Judge Joseph Tauro in Massachusetts has ruled — in two separate cases, no less — that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

President Barack Obama has said that DOMA is unconstitutional and the Justice Department, under his administration, will no longer defend it in court.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has said that the House of Representatives will defend DOMA in court since the Obama administration won’t.

And now, a group of five U.S. senators is set to introduce legislation to repeal DOMA.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Christopher Coons of Delaware and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut will officially announce their DOMA repeal bill in a press conference at 2 p.m. EST on Wednesday in the Senate Office Building.

Of course, with Republicans in charge of the House already having announced their plans to defend DOMA in court, and a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, it’s not likely that Obama will get to keep his campaign promise this year. Still, it’s nice to know DOMA repeal is still on the agenda.

—  admin

DOJ says DOMA justified to prevent ‘inequities’

LGBT advocates disappointed in Obama administration’s decision to defend law that he favors repealing

Lisa Keen  |  Keen News Service

The U.S. Department of Justice filed its brief Jan. 13 with a federal appeals court that will hear the government’s appeal of two district court decisions that found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

The cases are Nancy Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, brought by Gay & Lesbian Activists & Defenders, and Massachusetts v. Department of Health and Human Services, brought by the state.

DOJ, led by Assistant Attorney General Tony West, argues that U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro in Boston erred last year in finding one section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.

It also argues that “back-and-forth changes” such as those experienced by California concerning the recognition of same-sex marriages “have the potential to cause inequities in the operation of federal programs, and could result in administrative difficulties across a variety of federal programs.”

“Should [a federal] agency begin awarding benefits in response to court decisions that might later be overturned?” asks the brief. “How should the agency treat a couple who is married, then moves to a state where that marriage is not recognized? These questions highlight the administrative difficulties that federal agencies might face if federal law were automatically tied to state law in an area subject to substantial and sometimes rapid change.”

Mary Bonauto, civil rights director at GLAD, says the “touchstone is whether the marriage is valid under state law.”

“Even if a state reversed itself on marriage licensing for same-sex couples by passing an amendment, as happened in California,” said Bonauto, “that change does not affect the validity of the existing marriages.”

In response to the concern about same-sex couples moving from one state to another, said Bonauto, “The general rule is that if a couple is considered married in the state of their residence at the time they apply for a federal marital benefit, then they are married for purposes of that benefit even if they later move to a state that disrespects their marriage.”

Last July, Judge Tauro ruled, in Gill, that DOMA violates the equal protection and due process rights in the U.S. Constitution, and, in Massachusetts, that DOMA violates the 10th Amendment right to exercise control of certain state issues.

Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry group, said he “regrets” DOJ “continues to defend a law that President Barack Obama has repeatedly said is discriminatory.”

“Also disappointing is that the Justice Department is urging the court to give this discriminatory law a presumption of constitutionality,” said Wolfson. “The Justice Department should be asking the courts to examine DOMA with skeptical eyes, not rubberstamp discrimination.”

DOJ’s brief argues that the appeals court should use only the most minimal standard — rational basis — in scrutinizing the reasons the government gives to justify DOMA’s ban on recognition of married same-sex couples when it comes to having access to federal benefits made available to married straight couples. It then claims that the rational justifications behind DOMA are:

  • to preserve a national status quo at the federal level regarding marriage,
  • to ensure “uniform application” of federal law regarding marriage benefits, and
  • to show respect for each state’s sovereignty in developing its own policy concerning marriage.

The latter justification will probably make for an interesting discussion before a three-judge panel of the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals later this year. The First Circuit is located in Boston, Massachusetts, which famously became the first state to honor its state constitutional mandate of equal protection with regards to the issuance of marriage licenses.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office argued, in its district court brief, that DOMA is not showing respect for the sovereignty of Massachusetts.

“Instead, Congress chose to force Massachusetts (and other States) to violate the equal protection rights of its citizens or risk federal funding,” argued Massachusetts’ brief. “That is not neutrality; rather, it significantly burdens the ability of States to adopt any definition of marriage that does not match the federal one. …”

But while arguing that Congress needs to show respect for each state’s sovereignty, DOJ also argues Congress “could” reasonably conclude that a “uniform federal definition for the purposes of federal law would most consistently address variations between states that permit same-sex marriage and those that do not.”

“Without DOMA,” said DOJ, “federal benefits would vary for same-sex couples from state to state.”

Of course, that’s true for heterosexual couples, too. Only those straight couples who are married are eligible to receive federal marriage benefits. But DOJ adds that “while it may be preferable as a policy matter for Congress to have provided the same benefits to all married couples, the uniform path that Congress chose was permissible.”

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was introduced by U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) and signed into law in 1996 by Democratic President Bill Clinton. Wolfson noted that both have since “repudiated” the law.

GLAD and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office both filed lawsuits challenging DOMA’s Section 3, which limits the definition of marriage for federal purposes to one man and one woman.

There are three other cases challenging DOMA now in the federal courts. GLAD and the ACLU also filed two other lawsuits challenging DOMA — Pederson v. OPM in a Connecticut federal district court and Windsor v. U.S. in a New York federal district court. Both of these cases, if appealed, will come before the 2nd District U.S. Court of Appeals. Lambda Legal Defense argued its case, Karen Golinksi v. OPM, in federal district court in San Francisco last month. In that case, Lambda’s Marriage Project Director Jenny Pizer is arguing that 9th Circuit court employee Golinski should be able to obtain health coverage for her same-sex spouse the same as other federal court employees can obtain for their spouses. OPM, headed by openly gay appointee John Berry, instructed the 9th Circuit’s employee insurance carrier not to enroll Golinski’s same-sex spouse for coverage. The case is awaiting a decision from U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White, an appointee of President George W. Bush.

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright

Texas Republican seeking to intervene in marriage cases

Lamar Smith claims a ‘protectable interest’ in defending DOMA in Massachusetts lawsuits

Lisa Keen  |  Keen News Service lisakeen@mac.com

Claiming that the Obama Department of Justice is not doing enough to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Republican who represents Texas’ 21st district, has asked a federal court for permission to serve as an intervenor-defendant in two cases expected to come before the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Alliance Defense Fund announced Tuesday, Oct. 5,  that it had filed motions on behalf of Smith in the U.S. District Court for Boston, where Judge Joseph Tauro had ruled — in two cases — that one part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

The Department of Justice still has until Oct. 12 and Health and Human Services has until Oct. 18 to give the court notice of whether the federal government intends to appeal those decisions.

In its Oct. 5 motions to intervene, the ADF claims the Department of Justice is mounting “no defense at all” for DOMA. The lawsuits in question challenge only DOMA Section 3, the section that limits the interpretation of “marriage” for any federal purpose to heterosexual couples.

“We should be strengthening and protecting marriage, not subjecting it to a hostile takeover through the courts,” said Dale Schowengerdt, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, in a press release. “If the Obama administration won’t defend marriage, we are ready and willing to do so.”

ADF claims the DOJ has failed to raise certain crucial arguments in defense of DOMA. For instance, it argues that DOJ should have noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s “decision” in the 1972 Baker v. Nelson “was binding precedent that DOMA is constitutional.”

“Under the new administration, which strongly supports DOMA’s repeal, the DOJ traded these winning rationales for anemic arguments never recognized by any court in a challenge to DOMA or a similar state marriage definition,” states the ADF’s motion to intervene.

Actually, the Supreme Court did not issue a “decision” in Baker; it dismissed the appeal of a gay couple who had sought a marriage license in Minnesota.

Dismissing an appeal has more significance than simply refusing to hear the appeal. But, in dismissing the Baker appeal, the high court explained it was doing so because there was no “substantial federal question” presented by the case.

There is dispute within legal circles as to whether that dismissal means anything today.

And Mary Bonauto, civil rights director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders that brought one of the DOMA lawsuits, said the lawsuits here are not — like Baker — about marriage.

Bonauto also said she wasn’t surprised to learn of ADF’s motion to intervene.

“The ADF tries to intervene in everything,” said Bonauto. “We’re just surprised it took this long.”

Bonauto said her organization would oppose Smith’s motion to intervene “on multiple grounds.”

The motions to intervene will be decided by Judge Tauro sometime during the next few weeks or so. Bonauto said she doesn’t imagine the motions will be granted if the federal government decides to appeal the two cases.
The ADF motion claims that Rep. Smith has a “protectable interest” in the outcome of these lawsuits because, as ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, he has a duty to see that federal laws “are fully defended and that adverse decisions are appealed.”

The motion says Smith asked Attorney General Eric Holder, by letter, on Aug. 9, whether DOJ intends to appeal the DOMA cases. DOJ had not yet made a decision, notes ADF.

“[I]t is difficult to understand to DOJ’s indecision,” says ADF’s brief.

Attorneys for the HHS have until Tuesday, Oct. 12, to file notice that they intend to appeal the decision in the state’s case, Massachusetts v. HHS. DOJ attorneys have until Oct. 18 to file notice of appeal in GLAD’s case, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management. GLAD’s Bonauto said it is common for the appealing party to give the court notice of its appeal in the last couple of days remaining to do so.

Thus, the timing of ADF’s motion could have the political benefit of appearing to prod DOJ and HHS to file notice. But Arthur Leonard, a long-time legal scholar on LGBT cases, says it’s also not unusual for Smith to file the intervenor motion.

“There have been occasions in the past where members of Congress have sought to intervene in order to present what they think would be stronger arguments than the Justice Department is likely to present, especially when the administration that is defending the statute is different from the administration that signed it into law,” said Leonard.

“But,” he added, “to the extent this is about getting particular arguments before the court of appeals, I can’t imagine that an appeal of the DOMA case won’t attract plenty of amicus briefs that would make all the arguments that Rep. Smith would want to make.”

© 2010 Keen News Service

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 08, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas