an unanticipated consequence of
Jack M. Balkin
Jack Balkin: jackbalkin at yahoo.com
Bruce Ackerman bruce.ackerman at yale.edu
Ian Ayres ian.ayres at yale.edu
Mary Dudziak mary.l.dudziak at emory.edu
Joey Fishkin joey.fishkin at gmail.com
Heather Gerken heather.gerken at yale.edu
Abbe Gluck abbe.gluck at yale.edu
Mark Graber mgraber at law.umaryland.edu
Stephen Griffin sgriffin at tulane.edu
Bernard Harcourt harcourt at uchicago.edu
Scott Horton shorto at law.columbia.edu
Andrew Koppelman akoppelman at law.northwestern.edu
Marty Lederman msl46 at law.georgetown.edu
Sanford Levinson slevinson at law.utexas.edu
David Luban david.luban at gmail.com
Gerard Magliocca gmaglioc at iupui.edu
Jason Mazzone mazzonej at illinois.edu
Linda McClain lmcclain at bu.edu
John Mikhail mikhail at law.georgetown.edu
Frank Pasquale pasquale.frank at gmail.com
Nate Persily npersily at gmail.com
Michael Stokes Paulsen michaelstokespaulsen at gmail.com
Deborah Pearlstein dpearlst at princeton.edu
Rick Pildes rick.pildes at nyu.edu
Richard Primus raprimus at umich.edu
K. Sabeel Rahmansabeel.rahman at brooklaw.edu
Alice Ristroph alice.ristroph at shu.edu
Neil Siegel siegel at law.duke.edu
Brian Tamanaha btamanaha at wulaw.wustl.edu
Mark Tushnet mtushnet at law.harvard.edu
Adam Winkler winkler at ucla.edu
In a letter today to Speaker Boehner, Attorney General Holder advised that pursuant to a directive from the President, the Department of Justice will not defend section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in cases currently pending in the Southern District of New York and the District of Connecticut. Those cases, Windsor v. United States (S.D.N.Y.) and Pedersen v. OPM (D. Conn.) involve challenges to section 3 of DOMA (which defines marriage for purposes of federal law as a union between a man and a woman) by same-sex couples legally married under state law. Holder reports that the administration has concluded that sexual orientation classifications merit heightened judicial scrutiny and that under that standard, section 3 is unconstitutional. Because no "reasonable" argument can be made in defense of section 3's application to married same-sex couples, "the proper course is to forgo the defense of this statute."
This sounds like heady stuff. Refusing to defend DOMA because it is unconstitutional would be a dramatic development. But a close reading of Holder's letter suggests that what the DOJ is actually doing is considerably more modest.
The key paragraph in Holder's letter is this one:
In light of the foregoing, I will instruct the Department’s lawyers to immediately inform the district courts in Windsor and Pedersen of the Executive Branch’s view that heightened scrutiny is the appropriate standard of review and that, consistent with that standard, Section 3 of DOMA may not be constitutionally applied to same-sex couples whose marriages are legally recognized under state law. If asked by the district courts in the Second Circuit for the position of the United States in the event those courts determine that the applicable standard is rational basis, the Department will state that, consistent with the position it has taken in prior cases, a reasonable argument for Section 3’s constitutionality may be proffered under that permissive standard. Our attorneys will also notify the courts of our interest in providing Congress a full and fair opportunity to participate in the litigation in those cases. We will remain parties to the case and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation.
In other words, the actual position of the DOJ (which will remain in the case) is that if the courts agree with the government that heightened scrutiny is the appropriate standard, then the plaintiffs should prevail because section 3 of DOMA does not satisfy the heightened scrutiny test.
Whether the district courts (and the Second Circuit) will apply heightened scrutiny is an open question. Following the lead of other courts, they might conclude that rational review applies. If so, the government's position is that section 3 is constitutional under the rational standard.
Holder's opening rhetoric aside, the mechanics of the DOJ's position fall far short of a refusal to defend DOMA.