Wednesday, June 26, 2013
The Court's decision striking down section 3 of DOMA in United States v. Windsor was unsurprising, yet still a relief to many. Section 3 defined marriage for federal statutory purposes to mean only marriage between one man and one woman. Based on the late March oral arguments in Windsor, as well as Justice Kennedy's majority opinions in Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans, the common wisdom was that federalism would be the prevailing reasoning because the states historically have governed family law matters, including marital status. One of Justice Kennedy's projects has been revitalization of the Court's enforcement of federalism to protect the states, especially as a method to protect individual liberties (see, e.g., Bond v. United States).
And so it was. Justice Kennedy provided both structural and substantive reasons for striking down section 3 of DOMA. From a structural perspective, Justice Kennedy's majority emphasized traditional state dominion over marriage, writing: "By history and tradition, the definition and regulation of marriage ... has been treated as being within the realm of the separate States." Though the opinion walked right up to the federalism line, it stopped short of holding that DOMA exceeded congressional authority or violated the Tenth Amendment. Instead, the majority moved forward on substance and held that the federal government cannot take away the marriage right and its attendant societal status once conferred by the states. To do so was a violation of gay couples' liberty and dignity. The Court also hinted at an equal protection analysis, condemning Section 3 as creating second class marriages in states that recognize same-sex unions. The majority applied only rational basis review, rather than heightened scrutiny, holding that DOMA was motivated by anti-gay animus and served no legitimate governmental purpose.
Neither the federalism, nor the equal protection, nor the due process analysis was either complete or clear cut, and each opens more questions than it closes. For example, Justice Kennedy views the experiment of the states to protect individual liberty, and here, it happens that twelve states do protect liberty, more than the federal government. But, this view of federalism's aspirational work does not address the 37 or so states that do not protect the liberty interests of their gay citizens from state discrimination let alone the federal government's limited view of gay rights. And, this reversion to assessing traditional state law domains does not advance modern conceptions of federalism that acknowledge most state law is ineffibly intertwined with federal law by virtue of statutory interconnectedness, conditional spending, or other cooperative federalism mechanisms. Instead, Justice Kennedy seemed to be reaching back to the dual sovereign model of doctrinal federalism.
Fortunately, this regressive model of federalism does not seem to hinder the work that Windsor is likely to do with regard to DOMA's far-reaching effects on healthcare. For example, marital status influences not only access to affordable private health insurance (which is usually easier and cheaper through marriage), but also qualification for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program as well as Social Security, the gateway for Medicare at age 65. Section 3 also affected Medicaid enrollment and spend-down requirements for the elderly entering nursing homes. The Medicaid/DOMA issue was presented to the Court in a petition for certiorari that the Court has not granted or denied yet. Back in October, I highlighted the First Circuit's decision in Massachusetts v. Department of Health and Human Services, which was mentioned in passing by Justice Kennedy as a case that would suffer vacatur if the Court dismissed for lack of standing. It seems fair to read approval of the First Circuit's decision into Kennedy's cite, which makes me think the Court will not grant the petition.
In addition to public and private health insurance issues, some healthcare delivery issues are likely to be resolved by Windsor as well. For example, many stories have detailed how hospitals have turned away same-sex partners under the guise of HIPAA privacy. Other tales have highlighted how substituted decision-making at the end of life can devolve to estranged family members when same-sex partnerships are not recognized as giving the gay spouse decisional authority that would ordinarily be given without a second thought to a heterosexual spouse. Doctors' offices have refused to recognize same-sex spouses as parents of children who need medical attention. And, care for infants of same-sex couples may become easier now that the Family Medical Leave Act will apply to same-sex marriages. It seems that the federal recognition of gay marriage that will flow from Windsor will be beneficial in many healthcare situtations, even in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. Federal agencies have much work to do interpreting the word marriage in the coming days, but it seems that these decisions will facilitate a more functional approach to families' experiences in the healthcare system.