Tag Archives: LGBT

Some Thoughts on DOMA on the Eve of Supreme Court’s Ruling

Edie Thea
Thea Spyer and Edie Windsor. Windsor is suing the federal government for the return of over $363,000 that it charged her in federal taxes after she inherited her late wife Spyer’s estate. Had Windsor been married to a man instead of a woman, she would have been exempt from the tax. Picture via CNN.

We are now hours away from the last rulings of the Supreme Court’s term, and we know for certain that we’ll be getting a decision in United States v. Windsor, the challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (as well as Hollingsworth v. Perry, the California Proposition 8 case). On the eve of what will surely be a historic day for gays and lesbians across the country, it’s worth going back and reading the March oral argument for the case. A few points I’d like to make1:

  • Based on the way the other Justices were falling in line behind his questions at the oral argument and some deduction skills on the part of SCOTUSblog, there’s a decent chance that Justice Anthony Kennedy has the majority opinion in Windsor.
  • Assuming that Windsor isn’t decided on a standing issue (and I freely admit that it could be), I expect a Kennedy opinion to discuss states’ rights. Traditionally, family law has been left exclusively to the states, and Kennedy seemed quite concerned at the oral argument about the federalism issues implicated by DOMA, which orders the federal government not to recognize same-sex marriages even if they are legally recognized by the state. At one point, he reminded Paul Clement, the attorney defending the law: “[DOMA] applies to over 1,100 federal laws… when it has 1,100 laws, which in our society means that the Federal government is intertwined with the citizens’ day-to-day life, you are at real risk of running in conflict with what has always been thought to be the essence of the State police power, which is to regulate marriage, divorce, custody.”
  • Alternatively, if it does reach the merits of Windsor, the Supreme Court could strike down DOMA as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause (i.e. the law is unconstitutional because it singles out same-sex people for unfavorable treatment versus their opposite-sex counterparts). Such a ruling would, going forward, provide heightened legal protections for gays and lesbians in the face of discriminatory laws. However, this is also a much broader and groundbreaking route, and I’m not convinced that Kennedy will take it if he can decide the case based on a narrower states’ rights argument instead.

Associate Justice Elena Kagan Investiture Ceremony

While the lion’s share of attention re: DOMA has been focused on Kennedy (including, of course, this post, which has already given him three bullet points), I also want to highlight a couple of points that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan made at the Windsor oral argument:

        • Ginsburg drew big laughs at the argument when she compared the current state of same-sex marriage to “skim milk”i.e. not the real thing. Snappy sound bite aside, however, it’s interesting to note that Ginsburg–who by all accounts had a happy, fulfilling marriage to the late tax attorney Martin Ginsburg–was the one justice who focused the most on the everyday effects DOMA has on very real people and very real relationships. Again and again, Ginsburg steered the discussion back to the everyday hardships caused by this law–the loss of benefits, a higher tax burden, the inability to take leave to tend to a sick spouse–implicitly asking her colleagues to think about what a marriage really means. We need to strike down DOMA, she was saying, because it is unconstitutional to subject these Americans to a lower quality of life than what their heterosexual brothers and sisters expect and receive.
        • Whereas Justice Ginsburg made it a point to talk about (to put it in a cheesy way) love being love, Justice Kagan had an equally compelling observation about hate. Kagan’s strategy at oral argument was to focus on the people behind the law rather than the people the law affected. DOMA has no place in our society, Kagan suggested, because there are indications that it was motivated by “fear,” “animus” and “moral disapproval” against gays and lesbians–all constitutionally impermissible reasons for imposing differential treatment on a whole class of people. Memorably, she shut down Paul Clement when he tried to dispute this by reading aloud the House Report for DOMA: “‘Congress decided to reflect an honor of collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.'”
        • Together, Kagan and Ginsburg’s arguments about the suspect motivations and unjust results of DOMA made for a pretty good one-two punch. Assuming, again, that Kennedy actually has the majority opinion and dispatches DOMA based on a theory of states’ rights, I’m really hoping for a concurrence or two from either (or both) of these Justices, laying the intellectual groundwork for an equal protection decision somewhere down the line.
        • If that is the outcome, we can expect at least one fiery dissent as well. My money’s on Justice Scalia, who just last Friday gave a speech to the North Carolina Bar Association insisting that courts had no business deciding moral issues, which should be left to the political process. (He forgets that mixed-race marriage was also considered immoral back when Loving v. Virginia [the 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning anti-miscegenation laws] was decided, and that it was the Court that pulled public opinion along on this, not the other way around.)

Finally, it bears remembering that exactly ten years ago, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down the criminal convictions of two men who had been arrested and tried under a Texas law that prohibited certain forms of sexual conduct between members of the same sex. In overruling an earlier Supreme Court decision that had upheld the application of state sodomy bans to gay and lesbian sexual activity, majority opinion author Justice Anthony Kennedy invoked the Founding Fathers:

They knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom.

In a few short hours, we’ll find out just how committed Kennedy and the rest of the Supreme Court remain to this principle.

 

  1. With the major caveat, of course, that I realize oral arguments are not always an accurate indicator of the eventual outcome of a case. []

DOMA likely to fall, but how much further will Kennedy go?

Edie Arrives in Court

Edith Windsor, the 83-year-old plaintiff challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, arrives at Court with attorney Roberta Kaplan. Picture by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, found via ABC News.

Justice Anthony Kennedy had a choice to make this morning. In deciding the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act, should he go with a theory of federalism that emphasizes respect for states’ rights, or a wider-ranging theory of equality that might result in heightened legal protections for gays and lesbians across the United States?

Kennedy picked the former route and clung tightly to it today in a 110-minute oral argument for United States v. Windsor that put the swing Justice on firmer jurisprudential ground than yesterday’s Proposition 8 case. While the facts of Hollingsworth v. Perry pitted states’ rights and equal protection for gays directly against one another, leaving Kennedy confused as to which of a variety of unpalatable options he should choose, the legal issues in the Windsor case presented no such conflict. Rather, the state’s voters and the law’s challengers aligned in Windsor, where they merely asked the federal government to respect nine states’ decisions to recognize same-sex marriages. Here, the principles of federalism and equal protection both point to the unconstitutionality of DOMA.

Assuming that the Court doesn’t decide the case based on standing grounds, Justice Kennedy seemed perfectly content on Wednesday to limit any eventual ruling to the first question about states’ rights. He repeatedly reminded Paul Clement–the attorney tasked by the House of Representatives to argue in support of DOMA, since the Obama administration refused to defend it–that the right to define marriage (and the rest of family law) is “the essence of the State police power.” Kennedy also expressed concern over the sheer number of federal benefits provided based on marital status–1,100 and counting–noting that this means “the Federal government is intertwined with the citizens’ day-to-day life,” interfering with the state’s traditional “prerogative.”

Despite earlier rulings on gay rights cases that indicated a willingness to extend heightened judicial protections to gays and lesbians under the Fourteenth Amendment–an equality-based argument that would have far greater reach and be far more potent against discriminatory laws than a states’ rights takedown of DOMA–Kennedy appeared very hesitant to reconsider equal protection principles today (an issue on which he had also shown confusion at the Proposition 8 discussion yesterday). Several times during the oral argument, a fellow Justice or attorney would bring up Fourteenth Amendment considerations, and Kennedy would immediately steer them back to the federalism issues.

Sensing that its crucial fifth vote was reluctant to revisit arguments about equality, the liberal wing of the Court was happy to run with Kennedy’s line of thinking and echoed many of his concerns in follow-up questions. (One of the many perks of being a swing justice must be getting to set the tone for the oral argument and watching the rest of your colleagues follow along.) Justice Sotomayor asserted that the states, and not the federal government, control the institution of marriage, Kagan made reference to “historic State prerogatives,” and Ginsburg reiterated Kennedy’s sentiment that DOMA touches “every aspect of life” in a “pervasive” manner.

Kennedy’s hesitation notwithstanding, Justice Kagan in particular seemed intent on exploring heightened legal protection for gays and exposing DOMA as outdated legislation impermissibly based on animus. At one point, she dismantled Paul Clement’s arguments about legitimate government purposes for DOMA–he’d insisted that the federal government passed the law for purposes of uniformity across the states–by reading to him the 1996 House Report that clearly states that DOMA sprang from “moral disapproval” of homosexuality. While this rationale was once constitutional, basing discriminatory laws on disapproval toward a particular group has since been prohibited in 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas, the majority opinion for which was authored by–you guessed it–Anthony Kennedy himself. Clement was forced to backpedal and say that while some legislators may have had “improper motives” for DOMA, not all 84 of the Senators who voted for the law bore animus toward gays and lesbians.

Just as the liberal justices tailored their questions toward Kennedy’s views, the conservative Justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Scalia, tried to assuage Kennedy’s concerns by pressing Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr. and Edie Windsor’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, on states’ rights. Roberts repeatedly asked both parties if there was truly a federalism problem–a bit of a trap for Verrilli in particular, who as the representative of the United States federal government has no interest in ceding too much power to the states–and became audibly annoyed whenever Kaplan or Verrilli attempted to tie their answers to an equal protection argument. While Roberts and Scalia tried to compel the DOMA challengers to say that federal overreach was not really an issue here, Justice Alito brought up the practical point that a DOMA defeat would mean that gay couples could be treated differently whenever they moved across state lines–and therefore, that the equal protection problem is ultimately unavoidable.

Of course, Justice Alito is spot on here. Regardless of how Anthony Kennedy decides to decide this case, marriage equality is spreading throughout the United States, and the Supreme Court will eventually have to decide what level of judicial protection gays and lesbians deserve. As the swing vote firmly in control of the wheel, however, Kennedy has the luxury of slowing down the train if he wants to, and it looks like he’s going to do just that in the name of federalism. It won’t be as big of a step as many had hoped for, but come June we will likely be one tiny step closer to a more perfect union.

“It’s a Magic Word:” Tweets from the Eminently Quotable DOMA Oral Argument

Today, the Supreme Court heard two hours of arguments in United States v. Windsor, with fifty minutes allotted on the technical question of standing–namely, whether the DOMA case should even be before the Supreme Court at all–and sixty minutes on the merits. Though the Prop 8 case on Tuesday seemed to get the lion’s share of media attention–pictures of the line and the protests outside the Courthouse this morning show a smaller audience than yesterday’s–initial reactions and reports indicate that the DOMA argument and subsequent press conference from plaintiff Edie Windsor are 10,000% more quotable. A collection of tweets recapping the day’s events: