The Losing Argument for the Defense of Marriage Act

As he defends the federal gay marriage banSolicitor General Paul Clement wants you to forget everything he said last week about the federal health care law.

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Congress has no constitutional authority to punish people who don't want to have health insurance, Paul Clement argued last week before the United States Supreme Court. This week? The heralded attorney is arguing, to another panel of federal judges, that Congress has plenty of constitutional authority to punish people who don't want to marry someone of the opposite sex. Last week, Clement defended states' rights and labeled as "unprecedented" the federal health care policy. This week, he says that Congress can dictate terms of a federal marriage policy over the objections of states which have legalized same-sex marriage.

Welcome to the forlorn world of the Defense of Marriage Act, the teetering federal law which defines marriage as solely that between a man and a woman and thus deprives same-sex married couples of certain federal rights and privileges. This is the law that President Bill Clinton triangulated onto the books six weeks before the 1996 election. It is the law whose guts were fileted in 2010 by an esteemed federal trial judge. It is the law the Obama Administration last year all but gave up defending. And it may just be the law, with all due respect to Proposition 8, that gets same-sex marriage to the Supreme Court first.

On Wednesday, before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, it will be left to the House of Representatives to defend the honor of the statute. Led by the indefatigable Clement (watching him these past few weeks is like watching Jerry Lewis in a Jerry Lewis movie), the bipartisan lawmakers' group (spending your tax dollars) seeks to overturn U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro's 2010 decision striking down a key provision of the statute. If the House loses this appeal, if a federal circuit declares the DOMA unconstitutional, the Supreme Court would be far more likely to intervene. Put that on your potential calendar for next term.


The House of Representatives argues that Judge Tauro, a revered Nixon appointee, son of a beloved state supreme court justice, only pretended to give the Defense of Marriage Act the respect to which a federal statute is typically entitled. Judge Tauro, they wrote, "failed to apply rational basis review properly and either did not consider these [federal] interests or improperly discounted them." Fighting words. So let's first go back briefly to recall what Judge Tauro wrote about the Defense of Marriage Act. Here is the link to his July 8, 2010, ruling. You really should read it.

Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act states:

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word "marriage" means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word "spouse" refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.

The question in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management is whether same-sex couples, whose marriages are lawful in the states in which they reside, may be precluded by DOMA's Section 3 from participating in programs available to federal employees and their opposite-sex spouses. The lead plaintiff, for example, is Nancy Gill, who works for the United States Post Office and who wants to add her spouse, Marcelle Letourneau, to coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Yet here's how Judge Tauro described the legislative history of the marriage statute:

In the floor debate, members of Congress repeatedly voiced their disapproval of homosexuality, calling it "immoral," "depraved," "unnatural," "based on perversion" and "an attack upon God's principles." They argued that marriage by gays and lesbians would "demean" and "trivialize" heterosexual marriage and might indeed be "the final blow to the American family."

Although DOMA drastically amended the eligibility criteria for a vast number of different federal benefits, rights, and privileges that depend upon marital status, the relevant committees did not engage in a meaningful examination of the scope or effect of the law. For example, Congress did not hear testimony from agency heads regarding how DOMA would affect federal programs. Nor was there testimony from historians, economists, or specialists in family or child welfare (citations omitted).

For paragraph after paragraph, Judge Tauro ripped apart the official justifications for the statute. For example, he wrote:

Similarly, Congress' asserted interest in defending and nurturing heterosexual marriage is not "grounded in sufficient factual context [for this court] to ascertain some relation" between it and the classification DOMA effects. To begin with, this court notes that DOMA cannot possibly encourage Plaintiffs to marry members of the opposite sex because Plaintiffs are already married to members of the same sex. But more generally, this court cannot discern a means by which the federal government's denial of benefits to same-sex spouses might encourage homosexual people to marry members of the opposite sex. And denying marriage-based benefits to same-sex spouses certainly bears no reasonable relation to any interest the government might have in making heterosexual marriages more secure (citations to footnotes omitted).

Then Judge Tauro gave the law's supporters, especially Tenth Amendmentistas, a blunt conservative reminder about the extent to which the Marriage Act intruded (and intrudes even further today) upon traditional state law functions. Here, naturally for a ruling that strikes down part of a federal law, is the essential states' rights argument. The judge wrote:

There can be no dispute that the subject of domestic relations is the exclusive province of the states. And the powers to establish eligibility requirements for marriage, as well as to issue determinations of martial status, lie at the very core of such domestic relations law. The government therefore concedes, as it must, that Congress does not have the authority to place restrictions on the states' power to issue marriage licenses. And indeed, as the government aptly points out, DOMA refrains from directly doing so. Nonetheless, the government's argument assumes that Congress has some interest in a uniform definition of marriage for purposes of determining federal rights, benefits, and privileges. There is no such interest.

Remember that when Judge Tauro was writing here about "the government," he meant the Obama Administration. Now, with the Justice Department stepping into a mere "intervenor" role in the case, more forceful arguments on behalf of the law are being made to the federal appeals court. "The government" now is essentially the House, led by Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), which is why Clement, the future conservative Supreme Court justice, will be on his feet again. His head must be spinning. Legal standards aside, there are many mirror-like arguments here to the ones made over the Affordable Care Act.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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