DOMA Oral Arguments Explained

U.S. Supreme Court justices heard arguments for almost two hours on the federal Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday morning. The court covered wide ground, once again spending a significant amount of time on the topic of standing. This time the questions centered around whether the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), under the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had the legal right to sue. As in Proposition 8, the standing question could give the court the option to avoid the case by ruling that it should not have gone through the court system.

Supreme Court (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
Supreme Court (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

The justices also spent time on whether the federal government should be in the marriage business at all, or if that should be left to the states. Several justices also challenged President Obama’s 2011 decision to stop upholding DOMA, and what kinds of precedent that sets. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. often tried to bring up the equal protection clause, and whether it applies to gays and lesbians. However, the court often took that question and went back to federal versus states legal rights.

UC Davis Law Professor Vikram Amar discussed the oral arguments with KQED News.

Standing

Amar: If one is going to read tea leaves based on the oral argument, it seems as if the court is not inclined to do something huge, in striking down the laws of 40 states that currently prohibit same-sex marriage. My big takeaway from this has always been: The court did not really want to take these cases. … They may end up doing nothing at all, because both cases may get resolved on procedural standing grounds.

The basic idea is courts exist to decide crisp disputes, not just answer questions everyone wants answered. So unless you have somebody who is a plaintiff who has a lot at stake, and you have a defendant who is an appropriate defendant, then the court simply should not be able to render a ruling.

[At question is] whether [BLAG] is an appropriate representative of the Congress that passed the DOMA. Let’s say that the House of Representatives had not stepped in to defend DOMA, say some conservative pro-marriage group did. Now, it is Windsor against the United States, the United States is not defending, the House, the Senate, no one in the government is defending. But someone who likes the DOMA steps in and says, “I’ll defend it.” We clearly would not allow a court to resolve that case on the merits because we would not have confidence that that outside group that wants to defend DOMA would do the right kind of job, given that they are not a valid representative of the people and the Congress that passed the DOMA.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Can you tell me where the authorization is here? I know that there is a statute that gives the Senate specifically authorization to intervene and that there was consideration of extending that right to the House. But the appointment of BLAG is strange to me, because it’s not in a statute, it’s in a House rule.

So where — how does that constitute anything other than a private agreement among some Senators, the House leadership? And where — from where do they derive the right, the statutory right, to take on the power of representing the House in items outside of the House? I know they control the procedures within the House, but that’s a very different step from saying that they can decide who or to create standing in some way, prudential or otherwise, Article III or otherwise.

MR. CLEMENT: Well, Justice Sotomayor, I can point you to two places. One is the House rules that are pursuant to the rulemaking authority and approved by the institution. They’re approved in every Congress. Rule 2.8.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: What other House Rule creates the power of the majority leaders to represent the House outside of the functions of the House?

Can the President Choose Not to Uphold the Law?

Amar: Historically [how it works for] the president and the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., is that when a law is passed by Congress, even over a presidential veto, and is later challenged in court as being unconstitutional, that the executive branch of the United States views it as its job to defend what Congress has done and it will provide a vigorous defense in court. Unless the law is patently unconstitutional and no reasonable person could think there is a defense. So the president over the years has personally defended all sorts of laws he thinks are unconstitutional.

President Obama did not follow that general historical practice here, and hasn’t fully explained why this is an appropriate exception. That’s what Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia were frustrated by, because then a statute can die on the vine simply because the President is not enforcing it and yet no court has ever weighed in to invalidate it because there’s no case in which a case could do so. That gives a lot of power and discretion to the president.

Chadha is a case in which Congress passed a law that basically limited the president’s authority and enhanced Congress’s authority. Congress used that authority to deport a man named Mr. Chadha. He objected to this law on the ground that it … was a usurpation of authority by Congress. So, Chadha sued the federal government, the INS who was going to deport him and the president, through the attorney general, agreed with Mr. Chadha…So when the case was litigated you have the same situation you have in Prop. 8 and the DOMA, you have the executive branch on the side of the challenger rather than on the side of defending the legislative enactment. So the question is whether if Chadha was a case that was appropriate for Supreme Court resolution, why shouldn’t the DOMA case be similar.

But there are some important distinctions, so if it wants to [the court] can get rid of the case on standing grounds, and dooesn’t have to overrule the Chadha case, it just has to limit the Chadha ruling.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: No, it’s not just – it’s not unusual. It’s totally unprecedented.

MR. SRINIVASAN: Well, it’s totally unprecedented in one respect, Your Honor. If you look at Chadha — okay, the second point I’d make. Let me make one point at the outset, though, which is that whether it’s totally unusual or largely unusual, I grant you that it doesn’t happen. But the reason it doesn’t happen is because — I wouldn’t confuse a numerator with a denominator. This set of circumstances just doesn’t arise very often.

Now, it’s true that when this set of circumstances -

JUSTICE SCALIA: It has not arisen very often in the past, because in the past, when I was at the Office of Legal Counsel, there was an opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel which says that the Attorney General will defend the laws of the United States, except in two circumstances: Number one, where the basis for the alleged unconstitutionality has to do with presidential powers. When the presidential powers are involved, he’s the lawyer for the President. So he can say, we think the statute’s unconstitutional, I won’t defend it.

The second situation is where no possible rational argument could be made in defense of it. Now, neither of those situations exists here. And I’m wondering if we’re living in this new world where the Attorney General can simply decide, yeah, it’s unconstitutional, but it’s not so unconstitutional that I’m not willing to enforce it, if we’re in this new world, I — I don’t want these cases like this to come before this Court all the time.

And I think they will come all the time if that’s — if that’s — if that’s the new regime in the Justice Department that we’re dealing with.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I would have thought your answer would be that the Executive’s obligation to execute the law includes the obligation to execute the law consistent with the Constitution. And if he has made a determination that executing the law by enforcing the terms is unconstitutional, I don’t see why he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and execute not only the statute, but do it consistent with his view of the Constitution, rather than saying, oh, we’ll wait till the Supreme Court tells us we have no choice.

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, how are you aggrieved? “Aggrieved” means that you are deprived of your legal rights. And you don’t think that you’ve been deprived of your legal rights because your rights — your obligations under the Constitution supercede DOMA, and you haven’t been deprived of anything that you’re entitled to under the Constitution. So how are you aggrieved?

MR. SRINIVASAN: I guess we’d — I’d subscribe to the aggrievement analysis that the Court made in Chadha at pages 929 to 931 of its opinion. And what the Court said is this: “When an agency of the United States is a party to a case in which an act of Congress that it administers is held unconstitutional, it is an aggrieved party. The agency’s status as an aggrieved party is not altered by the fact that the Executive may agree with the holding that the statute in question is unconstitutional.” That description is on all fours with the circumstances of this case.

Federalism

Amar: Would the federal government be stepping on the toes of the states by treating same-sex couples as married, even when those couples were not treated as married in that state? Those are the kinds of questions that really probe this federalism rationale. How much is marriage an exclusive domain of the states? And is the federal government really out of its arena? To say that the federal government always has to defer to the states, or generally defer to the states in these marital arenas would be a big step, but at least is a step that does not resolve the meta-question here about whether the 40-odd states that ban same-sex marriage would have to change what they’re doing.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, I think — I think it is a DOMA problem. The question is whether or not the Federal government, under our federalism scheme, has the authority to regulate marriage.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, it applies to over what, 1,100 Federal laws, I think we are saying. So it’s not — it’s — it’s — I think there is quite a bit to your argument that if the tax deduction case, which is specific, whether or not if Congress has the power it can exercise it for the reason that it wants, that it likes some marriage it does like, I suppose it can do that.

But 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 — 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.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: They’re not — they’re not a question of additional benefits. I mean, they touch every aspect of life. Your partner is sick. Social Security. I mean, it’s pervasive. It’s not as though, well, there’s this little Federal sphere and it’s only a tax question.

It’s — it’s — as Justice Kennedy said, 1,100 statutes, and it affects every area of life. And so he was really diminishing what the State has said is marriage. You’re saying, no, State said two kinds of marriage; the full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage.

Equal Protection

Amar: The equal protection idea in the Constitution, and it’s in the 14th Amendment and it’s also in the Fifth Amendment, is not a command that government always treat everybody identically, because that would make no sense. Every law that government passes treats some persons or things than other persons or things.  Every law does that.

The question is what kind of basis for differentiating people is valid. It’s certainly OK to treat criminals differently than non-criminals; the former go to jail, the latter do not. It’s also certainly not OK to treat ethnic minorities differently than whites without a really strong justification. So why is it OK to treat criminals different than non-criminals, but not OK to treat blacks differently than whites?

Those are the big questions in equal protection and how do they apply to a group like gays and lesbians. Are they more like racial minorities or are they more properly analogous to other groups in society that don’t benefit from any special judicial protection?  So the equal protection idea requires the courts figure out which kinds of groups should not be treated differently based on some group characteristic.

 GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, with respect to Section 3 of DOMA, the problem is an equal protection problem from the point of view of the United States.

JUSTICE KAGAN: Yes, but, General, surely the question of what the Federal interests are and whether those Federal interests should take account of the historic State prerogatives in this area is relevant to the equal protection inquiry?

GENERAL VERRILLI: It’s central to the inquiry, Justice Kagan. I completely agree with that point.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Oh, so it would be central to the inquiry if Congress went the other way, too?

GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, the difference is what Section 3 does is impose this exclusion from Federal benefits on a class that has undeniably been subject to a history of terrible discrimination on the basis of –

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I understand that. That’s your equal protection argument. It’s not very responsive to my concern I’m trying to get an answer to. You don’t think federalism concerns come into play at all in this, right?

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Lisa Pickoff-White

Lisa Pickoff-White is KQED's Senior Interactive News Producer. Her work has been honored with awards from the Online News Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Society of Professional Journalists and SXSW Interactive. Lisa specializes in visual journalism, including photography and data. @pickoffwhite

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