BOSTON — Oral arguments in a landmark legal proceeding challenging the Defense of Marriage Act unfolded Wednesday, marking the first time an appeals court has heard a challenge to the anti-gay federal law.
Lawyers squared off over the constitutionality of DOMA, amid discussion about whether the law fails a rational basis standard of scrutiny or interferes with a state’s rights under the Tenth Amendment.
Stuart Delery, who’s gay and the Justice Department’s acting assistant attorney general for the civil division, surprised many when he said the Obama administration wouldn’t defend DOMA on any basis, including under rational basis review.
Last year, the Obama administration said it would no longer defend DOMA in court, on the basis that President Obama had determined that the anti-gay law fails heightened scrutiny because it discriminates against gay couples.
Asked by Judge Juan Torruella whether the administration has a position on the rational basis test for the law, Delery replied, “We don’t.”
Two cases challenging the constitutionality of DOMA are before the First Circuit: Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services, filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Delery’s position is significant because U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro in 2010 ruled in favor of plaintiffs on the basis that DOMA didn’t pass the rational basis standard review, or a rational means to a legitimate governmental end. Judges on the First Circuit will have to decide whether to affirm or overrule this decision.
Still, Delery said heightened scrutiny, or examining the law on the assumption that it’s discriminatory toward a group of people, is the appropriate way to handle DOMA because Congress passed DOMA in 1996 out of animus toward gay people.
Delery maintained that the name “DOMA” itself indicates that the anti-gay law was intended to discriminate against LGBT families.
“It was a defense against something, and that something was same-sex couples,” Delery said.
However, Delery said the administration doesn’t share the view that DOMA is unconstitutional on the basis that it interferes with a state’s Tenth Amendment right to regulate marriage, saying “that’s where we disagree” with the lawsuit.
Delery said Congress has the authority to define federal programs — even those related to marriage, where states traditionally have had jurisdiction on who can and cannot be marry.