by Mary Bonauto and Paul Smith. Ms. Bonauto is the Civil Rights Project Director at Gay & Lesbian Defenders in Boston. She was lead counsel in the Goodridge Massachusetts marriage case in 2003. Mr. Smith practices law in Washington, D.C. and argued the landmark Lawrence v. Texas gay rights case in the Supreme Court in 2003.
We are co-counsel in two of the lawsuits challenging the Defense of Marriage Act that are now awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor. We principally chose “DOMA” as a litigation target because it so clearly denies gay and lesbian married couples the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Constitution -- treating those married couples, and only those couples, as though they are single for purposes of all 1,100-plus federal laws that take marital status into account. Significantly though, DOMA also involves a decision by Congress to second-guess the choices made by individual states that have married same-sex couples. By defining “marriage,” for all federal purposes, as limited to heterosexual unions, the law vitiates the States’ determination that married same-sex couples are married for federal purposes. The ability to say who is married has been the virtually exclusive domain of the states -- not Congress -- and is bounded only by other constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection.
We have always felt that this limited federalism aspect of the DOMA litigation is also helpful on the equal protection challenge. In our briefs (as in Edie Windsor’s in the Supreme Court), the fact that states control marriage policy in this country is used to undercut the claimed justifications for discriminating based on sexual orientation that have been offered up by the law’s defenders. Although neither we nor Windsor raised these claims, one state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has its own pending case in which it argues that DOMA undermines state prerogatives to license marriages for same-sex couples as it does for others. A prominent amicus brief by conservative legal scholars filed in the Windsor case also sounded concerns that DOMA goes beyond defining marriage for federal purposes and interferes with state law. And at the Supreme Court arguments on March 27, Justice Kennedy and others asked questions suggesting they might agree that DOMA violates principles of federalism.
But the prospect that the Court might give considerable weight to federalism in a decision invalidating DOMA has caused grave concerns among some progressive observers – most notably Linda Greenhouse in her recent column ominously named “Trojan Horse.” The primary concern she expressed was that a decision invalidating DOMA on federalism grounds would, by emphasizing the primacy of states in setting marriage policy, somehow immunize from constitutional challenge those states that have chosen not to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. But this concern reflects a mixing of constitutional apples and oranges.