Bench Memos

House of Representatives’ Supreme Court Brief in Defense of DOMA

Yesterday the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives filed its merits brief in the Supreme Court in defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The remainder of this post is the “Summary of the Argument” from the brief:

Although the passions that surround the issue of same-sex marriage undoubtedly run high, the issue before this Court is quite narrow. Assuming that states remain free either to recognize same-sex marriages or retain the traditional definition, the question here is whether the federal government retains the same latitude to choose a definition for federal-law purposes, or whether instead it must borrow state-law definitions as its own, recognizing same-sex marriages of U.S. citizens residing in Massachusetts (because Massachusetts does) but not same-sex relationships of U.S. citizens residing in Virginia (because Virginia does not). Bedrock principles of federalism make clear that the federal government has the same latitude as the states to adopt its own definition of marriage for federal-law purposes and has a unique interest in treating citizens across the nation the same.

To be sure, the federal government also has the option of borrowing state-law definitions, as it did during the long period when the states uniformly employed the traditional definition. But in 1996 when it appeared that states soon would begin experimenting with changing the traditional definition, the federal government was under no obligation to follow suit. Congress could, and did, rationally decide to retain the traditional definition as the uniform rule for federal-law purposes. Congress could, and someday may, adopt a different approach and either incorporate varying state approaches or uniformly extend rights to same-sex couples even in states that retain the traditional definition. But under our system of government those decisions are wisely left to Congress and the democratic process.

In considering DOMA’s constitutionality, the Court should apply rational basis review as it previously has done when considering classifications on the basis of sexual orientation. And under that deferential standard, there is little question that DOMA rationally furthers multiple legitimate government interests. In 1996, Congress confronted an unprecedented dynamic with at least one state on the verge of experimenting with a fundamental change to the traditional definition of marriage. In DOMA, Congress acted to ensure that no one state’s decision to adopt a new definition would dictate the result for other sovereigns either via full faith and credit principles or by federal law borrowing state definitions. In our federal system, there is certainly nothing irrational about allowing each sovereign—including the federal government—to make this important decision for itself. Indeed, the justly celebrated ability of states to act as “laboratories of democracy” necessarily assumes the ability of each sovereign to run its own experiments.

And it was certainly rational for the federal government to retain the traditional definition as the governing definition for federal-law purposes. The federal government has a unique interest in ensuring that federal benefits and tax burdens are distributed equally such that a same-sex couple in Virginia is treated no differently for federal-law purposes from one in Massachusetts. And if the federal government can rationally favor a uniform rule, it was eminently rational to choose the traditional definition, which was the uniform state-law rule in 1996 and remains the majority approach today. That decision also was rational because it accurately reflected the intent of the prior Congresses that created the multitude of programs that tie benefits and burdens to the institution of marriage as traditionally understood. It also avoided the uncertain and unpredictable fiscal impact of expanding the class of federal beneficiaries in unintended ways.

And wholly apart from these unique federal interests that fully justify DOMA, Congress could rationally decide to retain the traditional definition for the same basic reasons that states adopted the traditional definition in the first place and that many continue to retain it: There is a unique relationship between marriage and procreation that stems from marriage’s origins as a means to address the tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unintended and unplanned offspring. There is nothing irrational about declining to extend marriage to same-sex relationships that, whatever their other similarities to opposite-sex relationships, simply do not share that same tendency. Congress likewise could rationally decide to foster relationships in which children are raised by both of their biological parents.

Finally, the Second Circuit erred when it became the first court of appeals to treat sexual orientation as a quasi-suspect class. Creating new suspect classes takes issues away from the democratic process, and this Court has wisely refrained from recognizing new suspect classes over the last four decades. Homosexuality would be a particularly anomalous place to eschew that reluctance, as gays and lesbians have substantial political power, which has grown exponentially with each election cycle. Nor do the other factors this Court has looked to support recognizing a new suspect class here. To the contrary, with an issue as divisive and fast-moving as same-sex marriage, the correct answer is to leave this issue to the democratic process. In that process, there is a premium on persuading opponents, rather than labeling them as bigots motivated by animus. And the democratic process allows compromise and way-stations, whereas constitutionalizing an issue yields a one-size-fits-all-solution that tends to harden the views of those who lose out at the courthouse, rather than the ballot box. In the final analysis, the democratic process is at work on this issue; there is no sound reason to constitutionalize it.


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