May 31, 2012
First Circuit: DOMA Section 3 Unconstitutional
In today's unanimous panel opinion in Massachusetts v. HHS, consolidated with Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, the First Circuit upheld federal District Judge Tauro's companion opinions that section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. (April's oral argument can be heard here).
The First Circuit opined that the issue is difficult not only because of what it called the Justice Department's "about face" but because it
couples issues of equal protection and federalism with the need to assess the rationale for a congressional statute passed with minimal hearings and lacking in formal findings. In addition, Supreme Court precedent offers some help to each side, but the rationale in several cases is open to interpretation. We have done our best to discern the direction of these precedents, but only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.
The panel relied upon Moreno, Cleburne, and Romer v. Evans, each of which "rested on the case-specific nature of the discrepant treatment, the burden imposed, and the infirmities of the justifications offered," to ultimately employ a heightened rational basis of equal protection review.
As to federalism, the panel noted that "DOMA intrudes extensively into a realm that has from the start of the nation been primarily confided to state regulation--domestic relations and the definition and incidents of lawful marriage--which is a leading instance of the states' exercise of their broad police-power authority over morality and culture." Although certainly the federal government does have an interest in marriage (given how many federal laws rely on the definition), nevertheless "Congress' effort to put a thumb on the scales and influence a state's decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws does bear on how the justifications are assessed."
The First Circuit thus stops short of finding that DOMA is inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment, but deploys federalism to evaluate the government interests under equal protection.
The four interests expressed in the House Committee Report were
- (1) defending and nurturing the institution of traditional, heterosexual marriage;
- (2) defending traditional notions of morality;
- (3) protecting state sovereignty and democratic self-governance; and
- (4) preserving scarce government resources.
The First Circuit rejected all these interests as inadequate, including the preservation of government resources that it found to be factually dubious, and also rejected the "child rearing" and "temporary measure" rationales advanced in litigation, as not supported by the legislation.
Thus, the panel concluded:
the rationales offered do not provide adequate support for section 3 of DOMA. Several of the reasons given do not match the statute and several others are diminished by specific holdings in Supreme Court decisions more or less directly on point. If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress' will, this statute fails that test.
Surely BLAG - - - the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the United States House of Representatives, an organization defending DOMA funded by taxpayers - - - will petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, although perhaps first for en banc review.
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Following the First Circuit’s critiques of the justifications for DOMA, I found particularly interesting the court’s dicta.
First, in citing O’Connor’s concurrence from Lawrence v. Texas, the first circuit court takes the view that supporting the “traditionally defined” institution of marriage is not equal to justifying DOMA based on homophobia or other anti-gay animus.
Second, there is the constitutional gravity of the task before the court: To strike down a Congressional statute that received “bipartisan support,” and was supported and signed by the President. In other words, a government action that had the support of the Legislative and Executive Branches of the U.S. Govt.
Nonetheless, the court does not seem uncomfortable with the task. Indeed, judicial scrutiny (or even judicial activism?) seems likely where the scrutinized law or government action affects “minority group interests” and concerns federal actions encroaching on “areas of traditional state concern.”
Posted by: Sherman | Jun 1, 2012 7:48:20 AM