Tuesday, July 13, 2010

DOMA Case #2: Massachusetts v. Health and Human Services

Yesterday, we looked at the Gill DOMA case. Today, I have a few items of note about the companion case, Massachusetts v. Health and Human Services (PDF), that also found part of DOMA unconstitutional.

Whereas Gill was an Equal Protection case, this case rests on Massachusetts' argument that DOMA is an unconstitutional federal intrusion into marriage, an area of state authority (the Gill case briefly touched upon this issue as well). With that argument, Judge Tauro agreed.

He began by noting that before, during, and after the framing of the Constitution, states maintained control over marriage status determinations. And, because "to a great extent, rules and regulations regarding marriage respond to local preferences, such regulations have varied significantly from state to state throughout American history." While there have been attempts to codify a single, universal definition of marriage, these attempts failed as "few members of Congress were willing to supersede their own states' power over marriage and divorce."

Despite the variation in marriage laws by state, the federal government respected and "accepted all state marital status determinations for the purposes of federal law." That is, if a couple had a state marriage license, the federal government would recognize the marriage as legitimate and confer federal benefits upon it. For instance, up until 1967, some states prohibited interracial marriage while others allowed it. The federal government relied on these state determinations of marriage status in recognizing a marriage for purposes of federal benefits.

Whereas in 2003, same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, DOMA prohibited the federal government from recognizing these marriages as legitimate for purposes of federal benefits. Thus, DOMA represented a departure from granting state deference to marital status determination. And this departure, Massachusetts argued, has had a negative impact on the operation of state programs.

For instance, one 20-year veteran of the military who was legally married to his same-sex spouse in Massachusetts wished have his spouse buried with him at a military cemetary. While the state wanted to honor his wishes, the federal government- citing DOMA- would not permit a same-sex spouse's burial in this cemetary, although heterosexual spouses of veterans were allowed. As another example, with respect to the state's Medicaid program, DOMA requires the state to assess married same-sex partners as though they are both single, "which has significant financial consequences for the state."

Judge Tauro analyzed this case under a merged Spending Clause and Tenth Amendment application, framing the constitutional issue as whether marital status determination lies exclusively with the states. The Tenth Amendment, if you remember, provides that “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Thus, every federal law “must be based on one or more of its powers enumerated in the Constitution."

The US government argued that DOMA was based on the Spending Clause of the Constitution, which grants Congress authority to spend money to promote "the general welfare." To this contention, Judge Tauro aptly noted that DOMA touches on many more provisions unrelated to federal spending- including some of the 1,138 federal benefits and privileges associated with marriage. And further, DOMA conditions a state's receipt of federal funds on an unconstitutional denial of marriage-based benefits to same-sex couples. That is, DOMA "induces" states to "violate the equal protection rights of its citizens," which Congress cannot do in utilizing its Spending Powers.

The Court also held that DOMA "plainly intrudes on a core area of state sovereignty- the ability to define the marital status of its citizens." Indeed, the state put forth compelling historical evidence that domestic relations laws were the very "archtype" of local, rather than national, concern.

Now, yesterday, I said that Gill could bode well for the Prop 8 trial, as it involved a federal court striking down an anti-gay law using rational basis review. I still believe that's true. However, with respect to this Massachusetts decision, let's think about what the Court is saying with respect to marital status determination being a matter of state sovereignty and how that relates to the Prop 8 case in California. In California, a federal court is going to decide whether a state referendum defining marriage a certain way is constitutional. Yet, in Massachusetts, a federal court just said that marriage is a matter of state sovereignty. Don't we have a contradiction problem?

Not really.

The US Constitution is the supreme law of the land (see also, Supremacy Clause), meaning that even though marriage is a core area of state sovereignty, the state must still act in a constitutional manner in exercising its sovereignty. So yes, California voters can define marriage as whatever they want... as long as they do not violate the federal constitutional rights of their fellow citizens. Of course, anti-gay folks who don't ever actually read court opinions already think they've identified a cute little gotcha here, and this fact of federalism won't stop anti-gays from howling in protest about special rights and activist judges, but it's a quite simple principle, really.

Anyway, because a few people have emailed me about what the implications of these cases are, I will also briefly address that issue as well.

1) These cases don't make same-sex marriage legal throughout the nation. The issue wasn't regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, but rather whether a law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage that are already legal is constitutional. This FAQ from Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders goes into more detail on consequences of this case.

2) The Gill and Masachusetts decisions are not binding on other district courts or, of course, higher federal courts. These decisions, however, could still be persuasive authority if these particular DOMA issues come up in other federal courts throughout the country. If other courts produce different outcomes, than we'd sort of have a clusterfuck of conflicting federal law.

3) It is not yet clear whether Obama's Department of Justice will appeal these decisions and continue to defend DOMA. On the legislative front, Congress could repeal the law. Which, you know, would make life easier for all of us.

In other important news, I think I've finally learned how to spell Massachusetts.

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