Bench Memos

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Judge Bryant’s Anti-DOMA Ruling


On Tuesday, federal district judge Vanessa L. Bryant of the District of Connecticut issued the latest ill-reasoned ruling holding that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act—which defines marriage solely for purposes of provisions of federal law—violates the Constitution’s equal-protection guarantees.

Judge Bryant, I’ll note, was appointed by President George W. Bush. Some might contend that shows that even “conservative” judges find DOMA unconstitutional. I suspect, instead, that it’s just further evidence of how much the Bush White House had to surrender in order to win blue-slip approval for district-court nominations in states with two Democratic senators.

I’m also tempted to say that Bryant’s ruling validates the American Bar Association’s initial evaluation of her as “not qualified,” but, in fairness to Bryant, her opinion isn’t markedly worse than other anti-DOMA rulings. The fact that Bryant devotes 40 pages of her opinion (slip op. at 35-75) to the proposition that “classifications based on sexual orientation are entitled to a heightened form of judicial scrutiny,” only to immediately set aside that proposition and purport to apply highly deferential rational-basis review, would seem to suggest that she is preening for politically correct applause.

I’m not going to try to catalog all the errors in Bryant’s reasoning, though it’s difficult to pass up such howlers as Bryant’s bewildered effort (already noted by William Duncan on the Corner) to distinguish the Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Baker v. Nelson on the ground that Baker supposedly “presented a state constitutional question while this case presents a United States constitutional question.” (Slip op. at 23.)

More fundamentally, Bryant simply misrepresents how section 3 of DOMA operates when she asserts (if I’m reading her turgid prose correctly) that section 3 “nullif[ies] laws adopted through the state democratic process.” (Slip op. at 101.) In fact, DOMA has no effect on how a state’s definition of marriage operates for purposes of state law. Consistent with federalism, DOMA leaves the state definition of marriage to operate in the state realm and limits the federal definition of marriage to the federal realm.

I’m going to address more fully in a separate post the manifest error that Judge Bryant and other judges have made in rejecting the argument that the federal interest in uniform eligibility for federal benefits provides a rational basis for section 3 of DOMA.


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