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Posts Tagged ‘U.S. v. Windsor’

Texas Supreme Court Refuses to Dismiss Challenge to Spousal Benefits for Houston City Employees

Posted on: June 30th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

In a clear misreading of the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling from 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges, especially as elucidated just days ago by that Court in Pavan v. Smith, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously refused on June 30 to dismiss a lawsuit by two disgruntled Houston taxpayers who argue that the city of Houston may not provide employee benefits for the same-sex spouses of its employees. The case is Pidgeon v. Turner, 2017 Tex. LEXIS 654.

Instead, while affirming a ruling by the Texas Court of Appeals that had reversed the preliminary injunction that a Texas trial court issued in 2014 against payment of the benefits, the Texas Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for it to decide whether the Obergefell decision obligates Houston to provide equal benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees, and also to consider the taxpayers’ argument that the city should be required to “claw back” the value of benefits that were paid prior to the Obergefell decision, on the theory that Texas’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages contracted out-of-state was valid until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was announced.

In Pavan v. Smith, the Arkansas Supreme Court had ruled that the Obergefell decision did not require the state to treat same-sex spouses the same as different-sex spouses for listing as a parent on the birth certificate of a child born to their spouse. Reversing that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said: “As we explained [in Obergefell], a State may not ‘exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.’ Indeed, in listing those terms and conditions — the ‘rights, benefits, and responsibilities’ to which same-sex couples, no less than opposite-sex couples, must have access — we expressly identified ‘birth and death certificates.’ That was no accident…”

Thus, the Supreme Court made clear in Pavan, contrary to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s unduly narrow reading of Obergefell, that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits of marriage as different-sex couples. In listing some of the rights and benefits of marriage that same-sex couples had wrongly been denied, the Obergefell court specifically mentioned health insurance, an employee benefit that is at issue in the Texas case.  Thus, to claim that the Obergefell opinion fails to deal with this issue explicitly is totally disingenuous.

And yet, Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd wrote for the Texas Supreme Court in Pidgeon v. Turner, “The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons, and – unlike the Fifth Circuit in DeLeon – it did not hold that the Texas DOMAs are unconstitutional.” “DeLeon” refers to the Texas marriage equality decision that was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit a few days after the Obergefell decision, holding that the Texas ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional in light of Obergefell.

Instead of cutting through procedural complications and saving everybody involved lots of wasted time and money through prolonged litigation, the Texas court has now repeated the error of the Arkansas Supreme Court by insisting that the Obergefell ruling does not clearly require “the same” rights, benefits and responsibilities, and, incredibly, cited in support of this point the Supreme Court’s decision on June 26 to grant review of a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Human Rights Commission, which concerns a totally different question: whether a baker has a 1st Amendment right to discriminate against a same-sex couple by refusing an order for a wedding cake in violation of a state anti-discrimination law.  The Supreme Court did not address in Obergefell the question of reconciling a potential clash between anti-discrimination laws and the rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech enjoyed by non-governmental entities and individuals.  But the Court most emphatically did address the issue that governmental actors, bound by the 14th Amendment, must accord the same rights to all married couples, whether same-sex or different-sex, and it reiterated that point in Pavan.

The Texas case dates back to 2013, when Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker, an out lesbian, reacted to the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision by extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees who had gone out of state to get married. At the time, Texas had both a state Defense of Marriage Act and a similar constitutional amendment, and Houston had a charter provision limiting municipal employee benefits to legal spouses and children of employees.  Relying on an advisory opinion from the city attorney, Parker concluded that after Windsor it was unconstitutional to refuse to recognize those out-of-state marriages.

Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, Houston taxpayers who identified themselves as devout Christians who did not want their tax money going to subsidize same-sex marriages, filed a lawsuit challenging the benefits extension in December 2013, and refiled in October 2014 after the first case was dismissed for “want of prosecution” while the parties were wrangling about the city’s attempt to remove the case to federal court. Pidgeon and Hicks claimed, based on state and city law, that the benefits extension was “expending significant public funds on an illegal activity.”  They persuaded a local trial judge to issue a preliminary injunction against continued payment of the benefits while the case was pending, and the city appealed.

The Texas Court of Appeals sat on the appeal while marriage equality litigation proceeded both in the federal courts in Texas – the DeLeon v. Perry case – and nationally. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell on June 26, 2015, the 5th Circuit, affirming a federal district court ruling, held in DeLeon that the Texas laws banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

Then the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s preliminary injunction in the Pidgeon case and sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to decide the case “consistent with DeLeon.” Pidgeon and Hicks sought to appeal this ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, but were initially turned down by that court.  Then the top Republican elected officials in the state – the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general – and a bunch of other non-parties filed papers with the Supreme Court urging it to change its mind and allow the appeal, which the court eventually agreed to do.

In its June 30 ruling, the court buried itself in procedural complications. Based on its incorrect conclusion that the Obergefell decision, as amplified by the Pavan ruling, does not decide the merits of this case, and further giving credence to the plaintiffs’ argument that Obergefell cannot be construed to have any retroactive effect because “the Supreme Court acknowledged that it was attributing a new meaning to the Fourteenth Amendment based on ‘new insights and societal understandings,”  the court opined that Pidgeon and Hicks should have an opportunity to “develop” their argument before the trial court.  This contention on retroactivity is not the view that has been taken by other courts, including some that have retroactively applied Obergefell to find that cohabiting same-sex couples in states that still have a common law marriage doctrine can be held to have been legally married prior to that ruling.  Indeed, the federal government even gave Windsor retroactive application, allowing same-sex couples to file for tax refunds for earlier years on the basis that the Internal Revenue Service’s refusal to recognize their state-law marriages under DOMA had been unconstitutional.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with Pidgeon that the Texas Court of Appeals should not have directed the trial court to rule “consistent with DeLeon” because, technically, the state trial courts are not bound by constitutional rulings of the federal courts of appeals, only by U.S. Supreme Court rulings on questions of federal law. DeLeon could be a “persuasive” precedent, but not a “binding” precedent.  This merits a big “so what?”  After all, the real question in this case is whether Obergefell requires that married same-sex couples are entitled to the “same benefits” as different-sex couples from their municipal employer, and the answer to that could not be more clear, especially after Pavan v. Smith.  (Indeed, Justice Gorsuch’s dissenting opinion in Pavan repeats the same mistaken assertion — that Obergefell does not clearly require the “same” rights and benefits which the Court responds to by quoting from Obergefell to the opposite effect – and is just as disingenuous as Justice Boyd’s decision for the Texas court.)

Now the case goes back to the trial court in Houston, where the outcome should be dictated by Pavan v. Smith and Obergefell and the court should dismiss this case. But, since this is taking place in Texas, where contempt for federal law is openly expressed by public officials, who knows how it will turn out?

Federal Court Applies U.S. v. Windsor Retroactively to Allow Lesbian Widow to Seek Pension Benefit

Posted on: January 11th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton ruled on January 4 in Schuett v. FedEx Corporation, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 244, 2015 WL 39890 (N.D. Cal.), that the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in U.S. v. Windsor, striking down Section 3, a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), could be applied retroactively to allow Stacey Schuett, a lesbian widow, to sue her late spouse’s employer for a survivor annuity.  Although the judge rejected a claim that the lawsuit could be brought directly under the company’s pension plan or as a breach of fiduciary duty action against the plan’s administrators, she accepted the argument that the plan could be sued for violating the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by failing to authorize the annuity for the plaintiff.

The story is complicated.  This account is based on what Stacey Schuett alleged in her complaint, as summarized by Judge Hamilton.

Schuett lived together in a committed relationship for 27 years with Lesly Taboada-Hall, who passed away from cancer on June 20, 2013, just a week before the Supreme Court’s momentous June 26 decisions rejecting an appeal of the federal court ruling that struck down California Proposition 8 and striking down Section 3 of DOMA.  For almost the entire length of their relationship, Taboada-Hall had been employed by Federal Express (FedEx), and she was a fully-vested participant in the FedEx Pension Plan.

As required by ERISA, the plan states that if an employee with a vested pension dies before retiring, their surviving spouse is eligible to receive a “qualified joint and survivor annuity” for the rest of their life.  The written pension plan uses the federal definition of spouse, directly referring to Section 3 of DOMA, which defined a spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”  This is the definition that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional on June 26, 2013.

Ms. Taboada-Hall was diagnosed with cancer in February, 2010, and as her condition worsened she took a medical leave of absence from FedEx in November 2012.  In February 2013, facing the fact that she would not be able to resume working, she contacted a FedEx human resources representative about her pension and other employee benefits, since she was eligible for early retirement under the terms of the pension plan.  The representative advised her not to retire, since she could continue on medical leave and have her medical expenses covered under the FedEx employee benefits plan.  She was asked about her other benefits, and was advised to name Schuett as her sole beneficiary on the other plans.  She also asked whether Schuett would get the “defined pension benefit” to which Taboada-Hall would be entitled, if Taboada-Hall died before retiring.  The representative said he did not know the answer to that and said “ask someone else.”

On June 3, 2013, the doctor advised that Taboada-Hall was terminal and did not have long to live.  Schuett and Taboada-Hall looked again through the benefits package, and noticed that the plan defined “spouse” with reference to DOMA.  Between June 3 and June 13, they had several conversations with FedEx human resources personnel trying to find out what would happen to Taboada-Hall’s benefits, and on June 13 they received the answer: Schuett would not receive a surviving spouse benefit because only opposite-sex partners could be recognized under the plan.

They quickly arranged with a Sonoma County Supervisor to come to their home and perform a civil marriage ceremony, even though they could not get a marriage license because Proposition 8 was still in effect.  The ceremony was witnessed by friends and family members on June 19. The next day Taboada-Hall died, and six days later Prop 8 and DOMA were declared unconstitutional.

What to do next?  Two days after the Prop 8 decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted its stay and Judge Vaughan Walker’s 2010 ruling holding Prop 8 unconstitutional went into effect.  Of course, the logical implication of the Supreme Court’s decision that the proponents of Prop 8 did not have standing to appeal Judge Walker’s decision was that Walker’s ruling should have been in effect from the summer of 2010 when it was issued, so by rights Taboada-Hall and Schuett should have been able to get a marriage license at any time since then.  Furthermore, the logical implication of the DOMA decision was that the federal definition of marriage was unconstitutional from the date it was enacted in 1996.

Schuett went into Sonoma County Superior Court on August 6, 2013, filing a Petition to Establish the Fact, Date, and Place of Marriage, contending that the June 19 marriage should be retroactively validated.  That court agreed, ruling on September 18, 2013, that the marriage was valid as of June 19, 2013, issuing a delayed certificate of marriage carrying that date.  This means that Schuett was a surviving widow when Taboada-Hall died on June 20, and thus she should be entitled to be treated as a surviving spouse by FedEx.

But not so fast!  FedEx turned her down for the benefit, arguing that eligibility depended on the terms of the written plan, which was limited to surviving different-sex spouses.  In Schuett’s federal lawsuit against FedEx for the benefit, Judge Hamilton agreed with FedEx that Schuett could not sue for the benefit directly, since only beneficiaries under a plan can sue for benefits and under the terms of the written plan she was not a beneficiary.  Furthermore, Judge Hamilton agreed with FedEx that the administrators of the plan had not violated their fiduciary duty, which required them to follow a reasonable interpretation of the written plan’s terms.  The judge granted FedEx’s motion to dismiss Schuett’s claims under these two legal theories.

However, plan administrators are required to administer plans “in accordance with applicable law,” wrote Judge Hamilton.  ERISA provides that a plan must provide an annuity benefit to the spouse of an employee who has a fully vested pension benefit but dies before they have retired and begun to receive retirement benefits.  Schuett argued that since California recognized her as being married on June 19, 2013, the day before Taboada-Hall died, she should be considered a surviving spouse for purposes of this ERISA provision.  She pointed out that in the Windsor case, the Supreme Court not only declared DOMA unconstitutional but also ordered that the federal government refund with interest the money Edie Windsor had paid to cover estate taxes of her wife, Thea Speyer, which would not have been due if the federal government recognized their Canadian marriage.  Thus, the ruling in Windsor was itself retroactive.

Judge Hamilton accepted Schuett’s argument, finding that “ERISA requires a fiduciary to follow plan documents insofar as such documents are consistent with Title I of ERISA.  ERISA requires defined benefit plans such as the Plan at issue to provide a qualified preretirement survivor annuity to all married participants who are vested and die before the annuity starting date, unless the participant has waived the benefit and the spouse consented to the waiver.”  Furthermore, the Department of Labor had issued a “guidance” document making clear that “ERISA’s mandatory benefits provisions apply to all spouses, including same-sex spouses.”

Among the cases Judge Hamilton relied upon were Cozen O’Connor P.C. v. Tobits, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105507, 2013 WL 3878688 (E.D. Pa. 2013), specifically on an ERISA survivor benefits claim involving a same-sex couple, and Harper v. Virginia Dep’t of Taxation, 509 U.S. 86 (1993), on retroactivity when the Supreme Court announces a new rule of federal law and applies it retroactively to the parties in the case.

Hamilton found that the Windsor decision “appears to invalidate Section 3 of DOMA retroactive to 1996, the date of enactment.  Notably, the decision in Windsor applied retroactively.”

“In the present case,” she wrote, “although California denied recognition of the term ‘spouse’ to same-sex couples at the time of Ms. Taboada-Hall’s death on June 20, 2013, the Sonoma County Superior Court determined that plaintiff and Ms. Taboada-Hall were married on June 19, 2013, and issued a delayed marriage certificate. . .  [T]his court defers to the California court’s certification of the marriage. . .  The court finds that plaintiff has adequately alleged that FedEx has violated Title I of ERISA by acting contrary to applicable federal law and failing to provide plaintiff with a benefit mandated by ERISA, and that she is entitled to pursue equitable relief to remedy that violation.”  She concluded on this point that she was not persuaded “under the facts alleged in the complaint that there is any basis for denying retroactive application of Windsor.” Thus, Judge Hamilton denied FedEx’s motion to dismiss Schuett’s claim under the ERISA violation theory.

Stacey Schuett is represented by Nina Rachel Wasow, an attorney with Feinberg, Jackson, Worthman & Wasow (Oakland); Amy Whelan, Christopher Francis Stoll, and Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (San Francisco); Julie Wilensky of Civil Rights Education & Enforcement Center (Berkeley); and Tate A. Birnie (Sebastopol).  FedEx used in-house counsel to litigate its motion to dismiss, but would probably retain outside counsel if it seeks to appeal this ruling to the 9th Circuit.  Since the FedEx plan administrators are under a fiduciary duty not to pay out any benefits that are not required by the plan or the law, they might conclude that they have to appeal this ruling, although the pragmatic approach could be to avoid the costs of litigation and grant Schuett’s claim for the annuity.  Of course, it is also open to Schuett to appeal the court’s order dismissing her claim on the other legal theories.

Federal Court Rejects Damage Claim for Pre-Windsor Benefits Denial as Time-Barred

Posted on: December 1st, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has rejected an attempt by a former federal government employee to win compensation from the government for its refusal to add his same-sex spouse to his insurance plan from 2004 until 2013.  Horvath v. Dodaro, 2015 WL 7566665 (D.D.C., Nov. 24, 2015).

Edward Horvath married Richard Neidich in Massachusetts on June 23, 2004, shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (Mass. 2003), went into effect, making Massachusetts the first and only state in which same-sex marriages could take place.  At the time, Horvath was employed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and sought to add Neidich to the employee health benefits plan, but was turned down pursuant to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of his marriage. (Horvath retired from the GAO in 2014.)

Horvath pursued administrative remedies after the turndown, but did not take the case all the way through the administrative process, dropping his internal appeals in 2006 and never taking them to court, persuaded that success was unlikely in that forum.  After U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), federal policy changed and Horvath was able to add Neidich to the plan, but only prospectively.  At the same time, he sought compensation for the prior refusal to add Neidich, reasoning that if it was unconstitutional for the federal government to refuse to recognize the marriage, it should have added Neidich to the plan back in 2004.

When his request was denied, he filed a complaint with the GAO’s Office of Opportunity, but that office rejected the complaint, explaining that the rule change implemented after Windsor “did not approve benefits prior to the June 26th date.”

Judge Kollar-Kotelly found that Horvath’s claim for compensation for the pre-Windsor period is time-barred, agreeing with defendants that the subsequent decisions in Windsor and Obergefell “do not revive Plaintiff’s time-barred claim under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Act. . .  Moreover, even if equitable tolling were available, Plaintiff’s failure to bring suit within the six-year statute of limitations because of his assessment that the odds of success in court were minimal would not be ‘extraordinary circumstances’ sufficient to justify equitable tolling,” she wrote.

She also found that any attempt to assert the damage claim on a constitutional theory would similarly be time-barred and would confront sovereign immunity problems.  Horvath’s attempt to assert a Title VII claim was found barred as well, the court finding that Horvath had not exhausted administrative remedies as required by that statute.

The judge explained that she did not reach the merits of the underlying claims due to the time-bar and exhaustion issues with respect to each of Horvath’s causes of action.

Readers may recall that soon after Windsor was decided, LGBT organizations advised the public to get claims and charges on file immediately in order to preserve claims, but cautioned about the likelihood of procedural difficulties with respect to claims going back more than six years due to the statute of limitations.  The advice is vindicated in this case, although Horvath might seek review of the court’s conclusion that there are no “exceptional circumstances” here justifying equitable tolling.  After all, Windsor and Obergefell were epochal decisions that totally changed the legal universe for same-sex couples in the United States, and even the most optimistic LGBT advocates were not predicting such a relatively speedy federal victory for same-sex marriage recognition back in the early years of the 21st century when Horvath and Neidich were married in the only jurisdiction in the U.S. that then allowed same-sex marriages. Might the D.C. Circuit view an equitable tolling argument with more favor?  And why would the Obama Administration fight it in light of their position before the Supreme Court that DOMA was unconstitutional and indefensible?

Supreme Court Grants Four Petitions to Review 6th Circuit’s Marriage Ruling

Posted on: January 19th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on January 16, 2015, that it was granting four petitions to review the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in DeBoer v. Snyder, 772 F.3d 388 (Nov. 6, 2014), which had rejected the claim that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and to have such marriages recognized by other states.  The 6th Circuit’s ruling, issued on November 6 on appeals by four states from district court pro-marriage equality decisions, had opened up a split among the circuit courts, as the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th Circuits had all ruled in favor of marriage equality claims during 2014, and the Supreme Court had refused on October 6 to review the rulings by the 4th, 7th and 10th Circuits.  (The 9th Circuit ruled was issued the day after the Supreme Court announced the three cert. denials, and only one of the two states involved in that case, Idaho, has filed cert. petitions, on which the Court has not taken action.) DeBoer v. Snyder, No. 14-571, cert. granted, 2015 WL 213650 (Jan. 16, 2015); Obergefell v. Hodges, No. 14-556, cert. granted, 2015 WL 213646 (Jan. 16, 2015); Tanco v. Haslam, No. 14-562, cert. granted, 2015 WL 213648 (Jan. 16, 2015); Bourke v. Beshear, No. 14-574, cert. granted, 2015 WL 213651 (Jan. 16, 2015).  Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., quickly announced that the Justice Department would file a brief with the Court urging reversal of the 6th Circuit.

The Court’s announcement of the cert. grant was accompanied by an announcement that the cases have been consolidated for the Court’s consideration, and that the grant was limited to the following two questions: (1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? (2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state?  The Court allotted 90 minutes for oral argument on Question 1 and 60 minutes for oral argument on Question 2.  Presumably these time allocations were made to assure that attorneys representing each of the four states involved – Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee – would have time to argue, and that representatives of each of the Petitioners would also have sufficient time.   Also, presumably, the questions were phrased this way and the argument divided into two parts because some of the cert. petitions address only marriage recognition, while others asked whether states are required to let same sex couples marry.

Three of the cases were decided on pretrial motions while the Michigan decision (DeBoer) followed a full trial on the merits, providing the Court with a trial record and detailed factual findings by the district court.  The Court limited the parties to briefing on the merits and presenting oral arguments on the questions presented in “their respective petitions.”  Thus the parties in the Ohio (Obergefell) and Tennessee (Tanco) cases will be arguing on Question 2, while the parties in the Michigan (DeBoer) case will address Question 1, and the parties in the Kentucky case (Bourke) case will be arguing on both questions.  Presumably the Court also scheduled a separate argument on the recognition question because it implicates some different doctrinal issues from the marriage argument.  Indeed, the recognition question could be decided by a straightforward extension of U.S. v. Windsor without ever addressing whether states are required to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, since the states are not really presenting significantly different arguments from those raised by the defenders of DOMA as reasons for the federal government to refuse to recognize same sex marriages.   The Court’s announcement did not specify how the time would be divided between the parties, but presumably Petitioners will get half the time and Respondents will get half the time and perhaps be left to work out among themselves how to allocate the time within their share.  Several LGBT litigation groups are among the attorneys representing Respondents.

The Court’s announcement included a tight briefing schedule calculated to get the case argued and decided before the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June.  Petitioners’ merits briefs are due by 2 pm on Friday, February 27, Respondents’ briefs by 2 p.m. on Friday, March 27, and all reply briefs by 2 p.m. on Friday, April 17.  Potential amici would be subject to the same tight briefing schedule.  The last scheduled argument date on the Court’s calendar for the October 2014 Term is April 29, 2015, so it seems likely the arguments will be held on April 27, 28 or 29, which would give the Court two months to settle on opinions if it wants to release them before the term ends.  According to the Court’s posted calendar, the last date for announcing decisions is June 29, but the Court has been known to extend the end of the term by a few days to dole out end-of-term opinions as they are ready.

The Court’s actions since October 6 may provide some insight in trying to forecast how the Court will ultimately rule.  After it denied certiorari in the cases from the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuits on October 6, the Court denied all subsequent motions from other states in those circuits to stay subsequent marriage equality rulings issued by district courts there.  The Court similarly denied all motions to stay district court rulings from states in the 9th Circuit after that circuit’s October 7 ruling.  Most significantly, the Court issued an order on December 19, denying a motion by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to stay a U.S. District Court marriage equality ruling in that state, pending the state’s appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.  That a majority of the Supreme Court was not willing to stay the Florida ruling, even though the case was yet to be decided by the 11th Circuit, spoke volumes about the likely outcome of its decision on the merits.  If a majority of the Court was not willing to stay the Florida ruling pending appeal, it seems likely that a majority of the Court is ready to rule on the merits in favor of marriage equality.  Only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were announced as disagreeing with the Court’s denial of a stay.  Although it is always hazardous to predict what the Supreme Court will ultimately do on an issue as to which it is likely to be sharply divided, it is also likely that there will be some consistency between the Court’s actions on stay motions after October 6 and its final ruling.  It is worth noting that prior to October 6, the Court granted every stay motion presented by a state seeking to delay lower court marriage equality decisions pending appellate review.

Over two years ago, the Court announced in December 2012 that it would review a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down California’s Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment enacted by voter initiative in 2008 that banned the performance or recognition of same sex marriages in California.  At that time, the Court added a question to those posed by the defenders of Prop 8 in their petition for review of the lower court decision striking it down: whether the Petitioners had “standing” to appeal the original ruling by the district court in San Francisco?  As none of the California officials named as defendants in Perry v. Schwarzenegger was willing to defend Proposition 8 on the merits, the district court had allowed the proponents of the initiative to intervene, and it was they who were appealing the ruling.  During the oral argument in that case, titled Hollingsworth v. Perry, 133 S. Ct. 2652 (2013), some of the time was taken up by arguments about the Petitioner’s standing, but the remaining time was devoted to arguing the merits.  Those curious about the types of questions the Supreme Court justices might pose to attorneys on Question 1 in the DeBoer case can access the audio recording of the oral argument on the Supreme Court’s website.  (The oral argument in Hollingsworth did not focus on the recognition question.)

Based on the Hollingsworth oral argument, there were predictions that the Court might vote 5-4 to strike down Proposition 8, but ultimately the Court concluded, in an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., that the Petitioners did not have standing, thus leaving the district court’s ruling in place and effectively striking down Proposition 8 without a Supreme Court ruling on the merits, on June 26, 2013.  Same sex marriages resumed in the nation’s most populous state a few days later.  The dissenting opinion in Hollingsworth was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., who argued that the Court had erred in finding lack of standing but who carefully limited his opinion from expressing any view as to the constitutionality of Proposition 8.

Justice Kennedy was the author of the other momentous marriage equality decision issued on the same day, United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), in which the Court voted 5-4 to declare unconstitutional the federal definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act.  In common with Kennedy’s earlier gay rights opinions in Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas, his Windsor opinion was not ideally clear about its doctrinal grounding, never expressly stating that the case involved a fundamental right or a suspect classification, or merited heightened scrutiny, thus spawning a variety of views from legal commentators and lower court judges and the precedential meaning of the opinion.  The 9th Circuit construed Windsor to be a suspect classification case, and decreed “heightened scrutiny” as the standard to apply in subsequent equal protection cases brought by gay plaintiffs.  See Smithkline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories, 740 F.3d 471, motion for rehearing en banc denied, 759 F.3d 990 (9th Cir. 2014). On this basis the 9th Circuit subsequently struck down the Nevada and Idaho same sex marriage bans in Latta v. Otter, 771 F.3d 456 (9th Cir. 2014), motion for rehearing en banc denied, 2015 WL 128117 (Jan. 9, 2015), petitions for cert. pending.  Some other courts ducked these issues, instead striking down bans on same sex marriage by finding that none of the alleged justifications for the bans survived some form of rational basis review, or that the bans were products of unconstitutional animus.  Some commentators have suggested that Kennedy’s decision is most explicable as being based on his view that DOMA was an expression of animus against gay people by Congress.  Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting from the Court’s decision, argued, as he had in his Lawrence dissent ten years earlier, that the majority opinion would support claims for the right of same sex couples to marry, and many of the lower court decisions cited and quoted from one or both of his dissents in support of their conclusions.

The Windsor ruling led to an avalanche of marriage equality lawsuits in every state that did not allow same sex couples to marry. The avalanche of lawsuits soon turned into an avalanche of court opinions.  Within weeks of Windsor, the federal district court in Ohio had ordered preliminary relief in Obergefell v. Kasich, 2013 WL 3814262 (S.D. Ohio, July 22, 2013), a marriage recognition case, and in December the district court in Utah issued a ruling on the merits striking down that state’s same sex marriage ban in Kitchen v. Herbert, 961 F.Supp.2d 1181 (D. Utah, Dec. 20, 2013).  Dozens of district court rulings and rulings by four circuit courts of appeals followed during 2014, so that by the time the Court granted cert. to review the 6th Circuit decision on January 16, 2015, same sex couples could marry in 37 states and the District of Columbia.  (In two of those states, Kansas and Missouri, disputes about the scope of lower court rulings made marriage available only in certain counties while the litigation continued.) There were also marriage equality district court decisions pending on appeal before the 1st, 5th, 8th and 11th Circuits.  The only federal courts to have rejected marriage equality claims after Windsor were district courts in Louisiana and Puerto Rico and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the consolidated case from four states that the Supreme Court will review.  A week before granting cert. in the 6th Circuit case, the Court rejected an attempt by Lambda Legal to get direct review of the Louisiana decision, Robicheaux v. Caldwell, 2 F.Supp.3d 910 (E.D. La. 2014), cert. denied, 2015 WL 133500 (Jan. 12, 2015).  The Court denied that petition just days after the 5th Circuit heard oral arguments in that appeal as well as state appeals from marriage equality rulings in Texas and Mississippi.

The most pressing question presented by the cert. grant, of course, is whether the Court will use this case to declare a constitutional right to marry throughout the United States, and to have those marriages recognized wherever a married couple might travel or reside.  But to those following the course of gay rights in the courts, the question of what rationale the Court uses to decide the case will also be pressing, especially as the various circuit court decisions have adopted different theories that might have a different impact for litigation about other issues.  This case may also give the Court an opportunity to clarify the circumstances under which lower federal courts are bound to follow an old Supreme Court decision whose rationale appears to have been eroded by subsequent legal developments.

The 6th Circuit opinion by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton held that the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a constitutional challenge to Minnesota’s same-sex marriage ban in Baker v. Nelson, 409 U.S. 810 (1972), precluded a ruling for the plaintiffs, as the Supreme Court had never overruled or disavowed that decision, in which the Court had stated that the issue of same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question” with no further discussion or explanation.  That ruling was also cited by the Louisiana and Puerto Rico district courts in their rejection of marriage equality claims, and it played a prominent role in a lengthy dissenting opinion issued just a week earlier by 9th Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, protesting his court’s refusal to reconsider its marriage equality ruling as requested by Idaho Governor Butch Otter.  See Latta v. Otter, 2015 WL 128117 (Jan. 9, 2015).

The question of the continuing precedential authority of Baker v. Nelson came up during the oral argument at the Supreme Court in Hollingsworth, the Proposition 8 case, when counsel for the Prop 8 proponents argued that the district court should not have ruled on the merits in that case because of Baker.  At that time, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dismissed Baker’s significance, point out that when Baker was decided the Court had not yet issued its rulings holding that heightened scrutiny applied to sex discrimination claims.  Because the 6th Circuit put such weight on Baker v. Nelson, it is likely to be discussed again during the DeBoer argument, and might also be addressed in the Court’s subsequent opinion.

The 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th Circuits all held that Baker was no longer a binding precedent, noting that since 1972 the Court had expanded its view of the fundamental right to marry in a series of cases building on its historic 1967 decision striking down Virginia’s criminal law banning interracial marriages, Loving v Virginia; that it had struck down an anti-gay state constitutional amendment on an equal protection challenge in Romer v. Evans in 1996; that it had struck down anti-gay sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003; and, of course, that it had struck down as violating both due process and equal protection the federal ban on recognizing same sex marriages in Windsor in 2013. In light of all these developments, even though the Court had never expressly overruled Baker, it would be ludicrous to suggest that same sex marriage does not present a “substantial federal question” after June 26, 2013. Even the Court’s most outspoken opponent of gay rights, Justice Antonin Scalia, might conceded to that point, since his dissenting opinions in Lawrence v. Texas and U.S. v. Windsor both proclaimed that the rationale of the majority opinions in those cases would open up claims for same-sex marriage, rendering the Court’s ipse dixit in Baker irrelevant.  The Windsor majority opinion did not even mention Baker v. Nelson, which the court below, the 2nd Circuit, dismissed as not relevant to the questions presented in that case.

The courts that have rejected marriage equality claims relying on Baker have stressed that the Court’s summary dismissal in Baker followed by several years its ruling in Loving v. Virginia.  They argue that this makes clear that the fundamental right to marry, as identified in Loving, could not extend to same sex couples; if it did, they argued, the Court would not have dismissed the Baker appeal.  This argument treats Loving as entirely a race discrimination case, but it conveniently ignores the way Loving was expanded by the Supreme Court in subsequent cases, including Turner and Zablocki, which spoke broadly of the fundamental right to marry as transcending the narrow issue of procreation and didn’t turn on racial issues.

In the marriage equality decisions during 2014 from the 4th and 10th Circuits, Bostic v. Schaefer, 760 F.3d 352 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, sub nom Rainey v. Bostic, 135 S. Ct. 286 (Oct. 6, 2014), and Bishop v. Smith, 760 F.3d 1070 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 271 (Oct. 6, 2014), the courts held that same-sex couples were being deprived of a fundamental right to marry, and that the states had failed to show that they had compelling justifications for abridging that right.  Hedging their bets, these courts also found that the state’s justifications failed to meet rationality review.  A Supreme Court ruling on this ground would not disturb the Court’s continuing reluctance to find explicitly that sexual orientation is a suspect classification, which would raise a presumption of unconstitutionality every time the government adopts a policy that discriminates on that basis and would put the burden on the government to prove an important, even compelling, policy justification to defend its position.  On the other hand, the 7th and 9th Circuits, in Baskin v. Bogan, 766 F.3d 648 (7th Cir.), cert. denied sub nom. Bogan v. Baskin and Walker v. Wolf, 135 S.Ct. 316 (Oct. 06, 2014), and Latta v. Otter, 771 F.3d 456 (9th Cir. 2014), motion for rehearing en banc denied,  2015 WL 128117 (Jan. 9, 2015), premised their decisions on equal protection, with the 9th Circuit, in line with its earlier ruling in a jury selection case, holding that sexual orientation discrimination calls for heightened scrutiny and the 7th Circuit following a similar path without articulating the “suspect classification” terminology.  A Supreme Court ruling based on equal protection that overtly applies heightened scrutiny would have a more far-reaching effect in other gay rights cases outside the marriage issue, which is why it seems more likely that the Court would take the due process route, or, as some argue that Justice Kennedy did in Windsor, attribute the same-sex marriage bans to unconstitutional animus and avoid any overt expression as to the other doctrinal issues.  The Court might be leery about reaffirming too broad a fundamental marriage right, for fear that it would put in play constitutional challenges to laws penalizing polygamy, adultery, and incest (as Scalia argued in his Lawrence dissent).  A ruling premised on finding animus as the prima motivator of same sex marriage bans would end the bans without necessarily altering Supreme Court doctrine applicable to any other gay-related or marriage-related issues that might come before the Court.

Most predictions about how the Court may rule presume that the Windsor majority will hold together and that the Windsor dissenters would dissent.  That would make Justice Kennedy the senior member of the majority who would likely assign the opinion to himself, as he did in Windsor.  (Now-retired Justice John Paul Stevens was the senior justice in the majority in Romer and Lawrence and assigned those opinions to Justice Kennedy, who returned the favor in Lawrence by prominently citing and quoting from Stevens’ dissenting opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick.)  Nobody is predicting that Justices Scalia, Thomas or Samuel Alito would abandon their dissenting votes in Windsor to join a marriage-equality majority, so they are unlikely to have any role in determining the Court’s doctrinal path in the case.  Indeed, Judge Sutton’s opinion for the 6th Circuit defiantly embraced the “originalism” approach advocated by Justices Scalia and Thomas for construing the 14th Amendment (an approach never endorsed by a majority of the Court), under which a claim for marriage equality would founder on the argument that the mid-19th century framers of that amendment could not possibly have intended or understood that its provisions would require states to license marriages by same sex couples.  Justice Kennedy, whose opinions in Lawrence and Windsor clearly disavowed an originalist approach to interpreting the scope of liberty protected by the due process clause, would never agree to these arguments.   However, there has been speculation that Chief Justice Roberts might join the majority, which would give him control of the opinion assignment.  In that case, one might expect a narrowly-focused opinion intended to keep together a doctrinally diverse majority of the Court, and intended to have as little effect on other cases as possible.

In the wake of the cert. grant, several media commentators tried to find particular significance in the Court’s wording of the questions and division of the argument, suggesting that the majority of the Court might have a plan to rule for the Petitioners on marriage recognition while ruling for the Respondents on the question whether states must license same sex marriages.  Such an approach was floated by 5th Circuit Judge James Graves in his questioning on January 9 during oral arguments of the appeals from Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, but strongly refuted by counsel for the plaintiffs in those cases.  One suspects that the 5th Circuit may hold off on issuing a ruling now that the Supreme Court has granted cert. to decide these questions, in which case we may never find out whether Judge Graves is committed to that course.  However, in light of the procedural and substantive posture of the cert. petitions coming up from four different states, the Court’s organization of the questions and division of the argument appears more a logical response to a complicated appellate situation than a strategic move to produce a “split the baby” decision.

6th Circuit Opens Up Circuit Split on Marriage Equality

Posted on: November 7th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit voted 2-1 to reverse marriage equality decisions from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee on November 6, creating a split of circuit authority that appeared calculated to provoke Supreme Court review just one month after the High Court had turned down petitions from five states in three circuits, effectively allowing marriage equality decisions to take effect in those states.  The opinion for the majority in DeBoer v. Snyder, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 21191, 2014 Westlaw 5748990, by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton framed the issue as “who should decide” whether same-sex couples have a right to marry, judges or the voters (either directly through referenda or indirectly through their elected legislators)?  He concluded that this was a policy decision best made through “democracy” rather than adjudication, thus parting company from his colleagues in the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th Circuits.

Although Sutton’s decision was long — 35 pages in the court’s slip opinion — much of it could be characterized as merely “dicta” — unnecessary ruminations — because at the outset he asserted that the court was bound by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Baker v. Nelson, 409 U.S. 810 (1972), an appeal from a Minnesota Supreme Court decision denying a gay couple’s marriage claim for lack of a “substantial federal question.” In those days, the Supreme Court was obliged by federal statutes to issue a ruling on the merits in any appeal from a state court decision concerning the constitutionality of a statute.  Because of the sheer volume of such cases, the Court frequently summarily affirmed the lower court without holding oral arguments or receiving full briefing from the parties, stating that the case did not present a “substantial federal question.”  Under the circumstances, such rulings are considered binding precedents on lower courts as to their judgments, but lacking a written opinion from the Court, the grounds of the decision are open to speculation.

“It matters not whether we think the decision was right in its time, remains right today, or will be followed by the Court in the future.  Only the Supreme Court may overrule its own precedents, and we remain bound even by its summary decisions ‘until such time as the Court informs us that we are not,'” wrote Sutton, referring to a later Supreme Court ruling explaining the precedential status of such summary dispositions, Hicks v. Miranda, 422 U.S. 332 (1975).  This was a selective quotation from Hicks, however, as each of the other circuit courts has found a basis in other statements in Hicks and later Supreme Court opinions suggesting that if later Supreme Court rulings make it clear that the earlier case would now present a substantial federal question, the old summary affirmance is no longer binding.

Sutton explained why he concluded that the 2013 DOMA ruling, U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), did not overrule Baker v. Nelson.  Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the Court did not mention Baker, and expressly disclaimed ruling on whether same-sex couples are entitled to marry.  Although Justice Kennedy wrote that the basis for the Court’s ruling was the 5th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection requirements, expressly disclaiming reliance on federalism to reach its result, Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissenting opinion characterized the case as being about “federalism” — the division of authority between state and federal governments — and Sutton reiterated that contention, arguing that the Windsor ruling leaves Baker v. Nelson untouched because it says nothing directly about whether same-sex couples are entitled under the 14th Amendment to marry.

If that is the case, then there was no reason for Sutton to keep writing.  He could have ended his opinion right there, without addressing the due process and equal protection arguments made by the plaintiffs in these cases, but he plunged ahead, rejecting the analyses of all the prior circuit court decisions as well as dozens of district court opinions (including the six opinions being reviewed in this case).  “A dose of humility makes us hesitant to condemn as unconstitutionally irrational a view of marriage shared not long ago by every society in the world, shared by most, if not all, of our ancestors, and shared still today by a significant number of the States,” he insisted, and went on to adopt the theory presented by the states that marriage as an institution was created to channel the procreative activities of heterosexual couples into a stable institution for raising their children.  While he conceded that views of marriage have evolved, and that there could be strong policy arguments for extending the right to marry to same-sex couples today, he said that this “does not show that the States, circa 2014, suddenly must look at this policy issue in just one way on pain of violating the Constitution.”  This is, of course, in line with his general philosophy concerning the respective role of legislatures and courts in making public policy decisions, and it channels the arguments made by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion in U.S. v. Windsor.

Understanding Sutton’s opinion requires understanding his judicial philosophy.  Sutton was appointed to the 6th Circuit by George W. Bush.  He was among Bush’s earliest appointments, and his very conservative reputation, earned from his law review articles and his service as Ohio State Solicitor, caused a substantial delay in his confirmation.  The Democrats briefly controlled the Senate at the beginning of Bush’s first term, and they refused to vote on the Sutton nomination.  After Republicans gained a majority in the Senate, Bush re-nominated Sutton and he was finally confirmed two years after his initial nomination.  After graduation from law school at Ohio State, Sutton had clerked at the Supreme Court for Justices Antonin Scalia and Lewis Powell.  His views on judging seem to be closely in sync with Scalia’s articulated positions.

Sutton lines up with those who say that constitutional provisions should be held to mean what their framers intended them to mean, based upon what they would have been taken to mean by the public at the time they were ratified.  Viewed from this perspective, the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, was intended to assure that the recently freed black slaves would be accorded the same legal status by the states as all other citizens.   Also viewed from this perspective, the function of the due process clause was to guarantee procedural fairness in administering the laws.  Adherents to this view of constitutional interpretation generally dispute the theory of “substantive due process” under which courts invalidate laws as impairing fundamental rights without sufficient justification.  They also long argued that the equal protection clause was intended solely to ban race discrimination, given the context of its adoption.  Even Justice Scalia seems to have backed away from this extreme view of the limits of equal protection, now describing himself as an “imperfect” originalist, but he has referred from time to time to the “discredited” theory of “substantive due process.”

At the same time, Sutton also proclaims, as does Scalia, that courts must be very deferential to the legislatures and the voters in matters of deciding public policy, that they must accord a strong presumption of constitutionality to policies made through the democratic process, and that they should only strike down state constitutional provisions and statutes in extreme cases where they directly contradict express constitutional provisions.  Such judges are fond of pointing out that the constitution does not mention marriage, and they consider the argument that there is a constitutionally protected fundamental right to marry as illegitimate.

Together with this, as Sutton points out, prior decisions by the 6th Circuit have rejected the contention that sexual orientation is a “suspect classification” or that laws discriminating against gay people are subject to heightened or strict scrutiny, so this 6th Circuit panel was bound in his view to uphold the state marriage bans if any rational basis for them could be hypothesized.

Given this background of judicial philosophy and 6th Circuit precedent, together with his rejection of the argument that U.S. v. Windsor had any direct application to this case, his conclusion that the marriage bans are constitutional was not very surprising.  Indeed, anybody listening to the oral argument held by the court exactly three months earlier would have to conclude that Sutton was very skeptical about the argument that the bans were unconstitutional.  This result from the 6th Circuit was widely anticipated, even by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose public remarks before the start of the Supreme Court’s term sent a clear signal that the Court felt no rush to take a same-sex marriage case, but that this could be changed by the decision that was forthcoming from the 6th Circuit.

Dissenting Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey, a senior judge who was appointed to the 6th Circuit by Bill Clinton early in his first term, chided Sutton at the outset of her opinion.  “The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED Talk or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy,” she wrote.  “But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state’s constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Instead, the majority sets up a false premise — that the question before us is ‘who should decide?” — and leads us through a largely irrelevant discourse on democracy and federalism.  In point of fact, the real issue before us concerns what is at stake in these six cases for the individual plaintiffs and their children, and what should be done about it.  Because I reject the majority’s resolution of these questions based on its invocation of vox populi and its reverence for ‘proceeding with caution’ (otherwise known as the ‘wait and see’ approach), I dissent.”

Daughtrey’s dissent incorporated parts of the other circuit court decisions, with particular emphasis on Judge Richard Posner’s opinion for the 7th Circuit and Judge Marsha Berzon’s concurring opinion in the 9th Circuit, rejecting the continuing precedential salience of Baker v. Nelson (which she describes as a “prime candidate” for being treated as a “dead letter”) and finding the states’ justifications for their marriage bans unavailing even under the least demanding rational basis scrutiny.  Thus, prior 6th Circuit cases commanding that rational basis review apply in sexual orientation cases presented no barrier to her conclusion, because she found that the state arguments failed to meet the rational basis test.

Clearly, this decision by the 6th Circuit panel is merely a way-station on the route to a final constitutional determination in a higher tribunal, and Sutton’s opinion at times reflects his understanding that his view is out of step with the trend of federal decisions and may well fall to Supreme Court review.  Daughtrey suggested a possible ulterior motive on the part of the majority.  After reviewing the trial record in the Michigan case and the reasoning of the opinions from the other circuits, she wrote, “These four cases from our sister circuits provide a rich mine of responses to every rationale raised by the defendants in the Sixth Circuit cases as a basis for excluding same-sex couples from contracting valid marriages.  Indeed, it would seem unnecessary for this court to do more than cite those cases in affirming the district courts’ decisions in the six cases now before us.  Because the correct result is so obvious, one is tempted to speculate that the majority has purposefully taken the contrary position to create the circuit split regarding the legality of same-sex marriage that could prompt a grant of certiorari by the Supreme Court and put an end to the uncertainty of status and the interstate chaos that the current discrepancy in state laws threatens.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the six cases conferred by telephone conference on November 7 about the strategy going forward.  Since ten out of the fifteen active judges on the 6th Circuit were appointed by Republican presidents, including a large number by George W. Bush, with only two appointees by Barack Obama and three by Bill Clinton, a motion for rehearing en banc seemed a pointless, time-wasting gesture, so the most likely path forward would be the filing of six petitions for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court at the earliest possible date, and the attorneys quickly reached a consensus on this point.  None of them would be filing motions for rehearing en banc.  Judging by how things have played out in recent Supreme Court terms, it appeared possible that if such petitions were filed promptly, one or more of these cases could end up on the Supreme Court’s active docket for decision during the current term, which ends in June 2015.  The best candidate for such review would probably by the Michigan decision, the only one decided after a trial affording a full factual record as opposed to the other cases that were decided on motions for summary judgment.

 

9th Circuit Holds Sexual Orientation Requires Heightened Scrutiny in Gay Juror Case

Posted on: January 21st, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today in Smithkline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories that a new trial has to be held because Abbott, the defendant in a civil suit involving claims about the pricing of HIV medications, used one of its “peremptory challenges” to exclude a gay man from the jury. The court found that excluding people from a jury because they are gay violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, under the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Batson v. Kentucky. As a necessary part of its ruling, the 9th Circuit panel concluded that sexual orientation discrimination claims are subject to “heightened scrutiny,” a doctrine that makes them more likely to succeed and that may have a significant impact on pending marriage equality cases in Nevada, Arizona and Oregon.

In Batson, the Supreme Court held that excluding a potential juror because of his race violated the 14th Amendment. The court explained that such discrimination in jury selection would “touch the entire community” because it would “undermine public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice,” and that proof of such discrimination was grounds for reversing a trial verdict and ordering a new trial. In a subsequent case, the Supreme Court extend Batson to discrimination based on sex, but indicated that “parties may exercise their peremptory challenges to remove from the venire any group or class of individuals normally subject to ‘rational basis’ review.” Race is subject to “strict scrutiny,” and sex is subject to “heightened scrutiny.” In order to decide whether the jury strike in this case came within the Batson precedent, the 9th Circuit had to decide whether sexual orientation discrimination is subject to “heightened scrutiny.”

In past decisions, the 9th Circuit has rejected “heightened scrutiny” for sexual orientation discrimination claims, and normally a 9th Circuit panel would follow those precedents. But, in an opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, the panel noted that the Supreme Court’s decision last June in United States v. Windsor has rendered the past 9th Circuit decisions obsolete. Even though the opinion for the Supreme Court by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not state explicitly what standard of review the Court was using in striking down Section 3 of DOMA, Judge Reinhardt asserted that the Windsor court was applying some form of heightened scrutiny in that case.

Reinhardt reached this result by a probing reading of Kennedy’s opinion, showing that what the Supreme Court actually did bore the hallmarks of a heightened scrutiny case. Under rational basis review, a statute would be presumed to be constitutional and would be upheld, despite its discriminatory effects, if the Court could hypothesize any rational justification for it. But the Supreme Court did not presume Section 3 to be constitutional, and paid no attention to the post-hoc justifications argued by former Solicitor General Paul Clement on behalf of a House of Representatives Committee. Instead, the Supreme Court focused on the legislative history of DOMA, which showed that it was enacted specifically to discriminate against gay people on grounds of moral disapproval. Justice Kennedy focused on Congress’s “avowed purpose” for enacting DOMA. “The principal purpose,” he wrote, “is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency.” “The result of this more fundamental inquiry,” wrote Judge Reinhardt, “was the Supreme Court’s conclusion that DOMA’s ‘demonstrated purpose raised a most serious question under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.’ Windsor thus requires not that we conceive of hypothetical purposes, but that we scrutinize Congress’s actual purposes. Windsor’s ‘careful consideration’ of DOMA’s actual purpose and its failure to consider other unsupported bases is antithetical to the very concept of rational basis review.”

Reinhardt also noted that the Windsor court put the burden on Congress to “justify disparate treatment of the group,” and under rational basis review, the burden is placed on the challenger to prove that there is no rational justification, not on the government to justify its discrimination. And Reinhardt pointed out that in rational basis cases, the court is “ordinarily unconcerned with the inequality that results from the challenged state action,” but that in Windsor, the Court expressed great concern about the inequality imposed on married same-sex couples by DOMA.

“Windsor refuses to tolerate the imposition of a second-class status on gays and lesbians,” wrote Reinhardt. “Section 3 of DOMA violates the equal protection component of the due process clause, Windsor tells us, because ‘it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition.’ Windsor was thus concerned with the public message sent by DOMA about the status occupied by gays and lesbians in our society. This government-sponsored message was in itself a harm of great constitutional significance.” From this, Reinhardt concluded, “Windsor requires that classifications based on sexual orientation that impose inequality on gays and lesbians and send a message of second-class status be justified by some legitimate purpose.” This, of course, is the hallmark of heightened scrutiny in equal protection cases. “Windsor requires that when state action discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, we must examine its actual purposes and carefully consider the resulting inequality to ensure that our most fundamental institutions neither send nor reinforce messages of stigma or second-class status. In short, Windsor requires heightened scrutiny.”

In this case, Abbott had an interest in avoiding seating jurors that might be biased against it because it was being charged with improperly inflating the price of HIV medications whose patents it controlled. During the voir dire questioning of potential jurors, it became clear that one man was gay due to his references to his partner. The attorney for Abbott questioned him briefly, but elicited no answers that indicated any particular bias against his client. However, he asked to strike the juror. When the attorney for the other party objected, raising the Batson principle, the trial judge questioned whether Batson applied to the case or the circumstances, but asked the attorney whether he had any particular reason for seeking to exclude the juror. The attorney did not specify a reason, and was allowed to use a peremptory (unexplained) challenge to eliminate him from the jury. The 9th Circuit held that this was error. Since sexual orientation discrimination merits heightened scrutiny, the Batson rule applies and because it was clear that the juror was a gay man and, under the circumstances, Abbott’s counsel might entertain the view that gay men would be biased against his client, some valid justification was necessary to sustain the challenge to his jury service.

The California Supreme Court extended the Batson rule to gay jury challenges long ago for purposes of trials in the state courts, but this ruling by the 9th Circuit is the first to extend Batson to such challenges in federal courts. But the ruling is potentially much more consequential–first, because it applies broadly to all sexual orientation discrimination claims, not just juror challenges, and second, because of another case pending before the 9th Circuit and shortly to be argued, Sevcik v. Sandoval, a challenge to Nevada’s ban on same-sex marriage. In Sevcik, the district court, ruling before last year’s Windsor decision, rejected a challenge to the Nevada marriage ban, holding that the court was bound under the 1972 Supreme Court affirmance in Baker v. Nelson to hold that Sevcik had not presented a “substantial federal constitutional question” and that the state’s ban survived rational basis review. Windsor was decided after Sevcik’s appeal to the 9th Circuit was filed. Now the 9th Circuit has ruled that Windsor requires heightened scrutiny of sexual orientation claims. That surely forecasts a reversal in Sevcik, although it is not clear whether the 9th Circuit would remand the case to the trial court for reconsideration under the heightened scrutiny standard or whether the court of appeals would rule as a matter of law under that standard that the Nevada ban is unconstitutional. Either way, the 9th Circuit’s ruling should have immediate consequences for recently filed marriage equality lawsuits in Arizona, Idaho and Oregon, states which are also in the 9th Circuit, as those district courts will be bound to apply heightened scrutiny in deciding those cases.

Lambda Legal had an amicus brief in the case, co-authored by Shelbi D. Day, Tara L. Borelli, and Jon W. Davidson, working from the organization’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles.

Same-Sex Marriages in Utah – “On Hold”?

Posted on: January 9th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

On December 20, 2013, US District Judge Shelby ruled in Kitchen v. Herbert that Utah’s constitutional amendment and statutes banning the performance or recognition of same-sex marriages violated the 14th Amendment. He was ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment. Since the state’s motion did not ask him to grant a stay in case his ruling went against them, he didn’t stay his ruling, which culminated in an injunction barring enforcement of the same-sex marriage ban. Immediately upon announcement of his ruling, same-sex couples started showing up at county clerk offices seeking – and, in many counties, getting – marriage licenses, and since then over 1300 same-sex marriages have been performed in Utah.

The attorney general’s office contacted Judge Shelby after the opinion was issued asking for a stay, and was told that they had to file a motion to that effect and give the other side an opportunity to respond. The motion was filed, responded to, and denied by Judge Shelby on December 23. On December 24, a two-judge motion panel of the 10th Circuit also denied a stay, but ordered that review of the district court’s opinion be expedited. A briefing schedule requires all briefing to be concluded by the end of February, and an argument will probably take place shortly thereafter. If the 10th Circuit really wants to expedite things — and take some excessive heat off of a three-judge panel — they should consider hearing the case en banc (by the entire 10-judge bench) right off the mark, since anything a three-judge panel decides might draw a petition for rehearing en banc anyway.

The state didn’t file its application for a stay with the Supreme Court until December 31, by which time perhaps as many as a thousand same-sex marriages had been performed. That Court granted a stay of the district court’s injunction, pending a ruling by the 10th Circuit, on January 6. So, effective upon issuance of the Supreme Court’s order, new same-sex marriages cannot be contracted in Utah while the stay is in effect.

The Utah Attorney General, Sean Reyes, announced, after some study, that the question of the legal status of the same-sex marriages performed from December 20 to January 6 is unprecedented and uncertain. The Governor’s Office issued an advisory notice on January 8 to state agencies asserting that the marriages are “on hold” and will not be recognized by the state while the stay is in effect. Governor Herbert’s position is that while the stay is in effect, the constitutional amendment and laws declared unconstitutional by Judge Shelby remain in effect and binding on the state. Since those laws ban recognition of same-sex marriages, the governor says, the state of Utah may not recognize these marriages. He temporized, however, stating that actions taken by the married couples prior to the stay would not be reversed. At least, he gave an example of a change of name on a driver’s license. If this was obtained before the stay, the state would not contest it — for now. He did not clarify, however, the interesting question whether same-sex spouses of state employees who signed up for spousal benefits before the stay would remain entitled to those benefits. His announcement does clearly imply that any applications to the state for anything requiring a valid marriage that was not filed prior to January 6 won’t be honored by the state.

My question is this: The Supreme Court stayed the district court’s injunction, but that’s all it stayed. It could not stay the 14th Amendment. That remains in effect in Utah. And that applies to these 1300-plus marriages. The announcement from the Governor’s Office said that its non-recognition position “is not intended to comment on the legal status of those same-sex marriages — that is for the courts to decide.” And there are more courts that have jurisdiction to decide that question than just the 10th Circuit in the pending appeal. So, does the state’s refusal to recognize the same-sex marriages violate the 14th Amendment rights of those couples?

What if, for example, one spouse in a same-sex marriage performed in Utah on December 20 suddenly dies? The governor would say that the question whether their surviving spouse is recognized as such under Utah law must be in held in abeyance — until, apparently, the final resolution of Kitchen v. Herbert, which might not be until 2015 or even later. In a similar situation, however, a federal court in Ohio ordered the state to recognize a surviving spouse from an out-of-state same-sex marriage, even though Ohio has a constitutional amendment and statutes similar to those of Utah. The district court in Ohio identified a constitutional “right to remain married” that outweighed whatever interest the state was asserting in refusing to recognize the marriage. And the court pointed to such realities as restrictions on burials in family plots and access to death benefits that would pose substantial harm to a surviving spouse whose marriage is not recognized. Utah recognizes other out-of-state marriages for such purposes. What valid policy reason would it have for refusing to recognize these marriages that took place pursuant to valid Utah marriage licenses? Do these 1300-plus Utah couples now have a constitutional “right to remain married” and would a state or federal court enforce that right by ordering the state to recognize a surviving spouse?

One can spin out numerous such hypotheticals. The longer the stay is in effect, the longer the normal vicissitudes of life will present situations where these couples whose marriages are considered by the state to be “on hold” will need to have decisions made. Litigation seems likely.

An emerging trend in the lower federal courts is to construe U.S. v. Windsor broadly as supporting the constitutional arguments of marriage equality advocates. (Justice Scalia construed it that way in his dissent, as Judge Shelby was quick to point out.) While the Utah case is pending before the 10th Circuit, we can expect to get more district court summary judgment rulings in the numerous pending marriage equality cases. Motions for summary judgment are already on file or soon to be filed in cases pending in other federal districts, as well as in many state courts. Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania. . . The list goes on. More district court opinions are going to be issued in the months ahead, and the 9th Circuit may be ruling during 2014 on the appeal now pending from an adverse marriage equality ruling by the district court in Nevada, a ruling that predates Windsor and whose reliance on Baker v. Nelson as authority for rejecting the constitutional challenge appears risible in light of Windsor. Marriage equality plaintiffs may lose some of these motions, but it is likely that they will win some, and public opinion will advance as more opinions issue. These cases are pending in states where the local and state officials are inclined to defend their same-sex marriage bans, and by now they may be waking up to the need to ask for stays when litigating summary judgment motions, so we may not have a repeat of what happened in Utah (and, last year, in New Jersey) in terms of a district court order actually going into effect while an appeal is pending. Surely one thing the Supreme Court’s Order has done is to signal lower courts that marriage equality rulings are to be stayed pending appeal.

If marriage equality advocates win a circuit court of appeals ruling or a state supreme court ruling premised on the federal constitution, the Supreme Court would pretty definitely grant review, although it could abstain if it wanted to do so. But I would predict that the Supreme Court would be deluged by amicus briefs from state attorneys general and governors urging it to grant review, and perhaps the Solicitor General would join in, since the S.G. ended up coming in on the side of the marriage equality advocates in the California Proposition 8 case when it got to the Supreme Court and could logically argue that it would be in the interest of the nation to have a definitive ruling on marriage equality.

Most lower courts and legal scholars now seem to feel that the Windsor case lays a firm groundwork for the Supreme Court to rule for marriage equality, although there is some dissent from that view, mainly focused on the federalism comments in Justice Kennedy’s opinion and the particular wording of the operative portion of the opinion. Justice Kennedy spoke in terms of the right of married couples to “equal dignity” from the federal government, but he referred to a dignity “conferred upon” those couples by the states that allow them to marry, and I’ve heard the argument that this signals a right of states to decide who can marry. I don’t think that the grant of a stay need affect the analysis of the ultimate question on the merits, although some might construe it as signaling disagreement by a majority of the Court with Judge Shelby’s decision. I think that would be an unduly pessimistic reading. Issuing a stay in a case like this seems like the natural thing to do. The 9th Circuit did it in the Prop 8 case, and the 2nd and 1st Circuits did it in the DOMA cases. I speculate that the Supreme Court majority (perhaps even all of them) was sympathetic to the state’s argument that implementation of a major social change should not take place on the basis of a single-judge district court decision awaiting review on a question that the Supreme Court has not yet decided, and this would justify a stay, at least until the 10th Circuit rules, regardless of whether the Supreme Court was likely to reverse upon further appeal.

As to how the Supreme Court would ultimately rule, I remain unsure. I had found Justice Scalia’s dissent persuasive on this point, if a bit overblown in his usual dissenting style, but I’ve heard at least moderately persuasive arguments to the contrary: that although Justice Kennedy disavowed deciding the case on federalism grounds, his analysis incorporates a heavy dose of federalism in any event, and there is plenty of language in his opinion to quote in support of the idea that defining marriage is a state prerogative in the first instance. But he was also careful to note that states must act within constitutional bounds, as the Supreme Court has ruled several times in striking down state marriage restrictions. So I remain uncertain how Kitchen v. Herbert may ultimately be decided by the Court, under the likely name of Herbert v. Kitchen.

As to what may happen in the 10th Circuit, I was cheered to read a comment in the Salt Lake Tribune that Prof. Lynn Wardle of Brigham Young University Law School, an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage whose name appears on briefs in this case, seems resigned to losing in the 10th Circuit. The circuit is “evenly balanced” at present in terms of the political affiliations of the presidents who appointed the judges — 5 by Democrats and 5 by Republicans – but that doesn’t necessarily tell us how this will come out on the merits. (A tie vote, by the way, would affirm the district court by default.) The two-judge panel that denied the stay had one Republican appointee and one Democratic appointee. The 2nd and 1st Circuit DOMA panels did not fall along political lines, either. The district judge in Massachusetts who ruled against DOMA was a Republican appointee, as was the Circuit judge who wrote the opinion affirming him, as was Justice Kennedy who wrote for the Court in Windsor. So we just have to wait and see on the merits.

But for now, I think it would be interesting to see what a Utah or federal court might say about the refusal of the state to recognize lawfully-contracted same-sex marriages while the stay is in effect, and I would anticipate that some lawsuits may be filed relatively quickly.

9th Circuit Administrative Ruling Finds Denial of Benefits to Oregon Domestic Partner Unconstitutional

Posted on: November 26th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Executive Committee of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s Judicial Council ruled on November 25 that a former federal court employee in Oregon was entitled to compensation for the cost of providing health insurance for her same-sex domestic partner because the refusal by the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to recognize Oregon domestic partnerships for this purpose violates the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Oregon district court’s non-discrimination policy.  The three federal judges on the Committee rejected OPM’s reliance on last June’s Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, and reversed a March 2013 ruling by Chief Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for Oregon which had denied reimbursement for this purpose.  In the Matter of Margaret Fonberg, 2013 WL 6153265, EDR No. 13-002.

The 9th Circuit Judicial Council is an administrative body that deals with grievances from employees of the federal courts.  These employees participate in the federal employee benefits plans overseen by OPM.  In 2009, 9th Circuit judges sitting in this capacity ruled on two grievances that federal court employees in California who had married their same-sex partners in 2008 prior to the passage of Proposition 8 were entitled to enroll their partners as spouses under the federal plan, but OPM instructed the insurance plan not to enroll them, citing Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  One of those cases was resolved by the clerk of the employing court reimbursing the employee for the cost of his husband’s insurance; the other resulted in a federal lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal on behalf of Karen Golinski, in which a federal district judge ruled that DOMA Section 3 was unconstitutional prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2013, decision to the same effect in U.S. v. Windsor.  After the Windsor ruling, the government pending appeal of Golinski’s decision to the 9th Circuit was dismissed based on OPM’s change of policy to recognize same-sex marriages.  OPM announced in July that it would recognize same-sex marriages for purposes of federal employee benefits plans, regardless where the employees and their spouses resided, so long as the place where they married recognized same-sex marriages.  However, taking a strict view of the Windsor ruling, OPM announced that it could not recognize domestic partnerships or civil unions.

The federal government’s continuing failure to recognize state-approved New Jersey civil unions was the main point of contention in the New Jersey marriage equality litigation, persuading N.J. Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson to rule in September that same-sex couples in New Jersey were entitled to marry, resulting in marriage equality in New Jersey when Governor Chris Christie’s attempt to get the decision stayed was unanimously rejected by the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Christie had argued that the plaintiffs in that case should have been suing the federal government to recognize their civil unions, rather than suing New Jersey.  This argument did not cut any ice with the New Jersey courts.

The Oregon ruling responds to a grievance filed in 2009 by Margaret Fonberg, a former law clerk at the federal district court in Oregon, who sought to enroll her same-sex registered domestic partner for the family health plan.  She was turned down by OPM on the ground that they were not married.  She then filed an Employee Dispute Resolution Plan(EDR)  grievance.  In 2011, Chief Judge Aiken ruled in her favor, finding that denying health benefits to Fonberg’s partner because of her sex violated the District Court’s non-discrimination policy  Aiken ordered that Fonberg be reimbursed for the cost of obtaining health insurance for her partner.  However, Aiken subsequently rescinded her directive to the court’s  clerk to pay out the money in March 2013, “because no legal method for reimbursement is currently available and the law affords Fonberg no remedy in this matter.”

Fonberg’s appeal to the Executive Committee came before three judges:  Chief Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, Circuit Judge Richard R. Clifton, and Chief District Judge Ralph Beistline of the U.S. District Court in Alaska (which is part of the 9th Circuit).  The Committee’s ruling points out that Oregon’s domestic partnership statute claims to “confer upon same-sex domestic partners the same rights and legal status as those conferred on married couples.  In practice, however, it does not.  Domestic partners are denied benefits from the federal government that are granted to married couples (including same-sex couples).  OPM’s position here demonstrates that fact.”

The Committee found that Fonberg was suffering discrimination in two ways.  First, she and her partner “are treated differently from opposite-sex partners who are allowed to marry and thereby gain spousal benefits under federal law.  This is plainly discrimination based on sexual orientation, which the District of Oregon’s EDR Plan prohibits.”  Second, Fonberg and her partner are treated unequally with “same-sex couples in other states in the [9th] Circuit, who may marry and thus gain benefits” under the Windsor ruling.  “This violates the principle that federal employees must not be treated unequally in the entitlements and benefits of federal employment based on the vagaries of state law.”  Same-sex couples have the right to marry now in California and Washington State, and Hawaii’s marriage equality law will go into effect within weeks.  The 9th Circuit is currently considering an appeal in a marriage equality case from Nevada.

The panel concluded that denying the benefits in this case “amounts to discrimination 0n the basis of sex under the District of Oregon’s EDR Plan and, under Windsor, constitutes a deprivation of due process and equal protection.”

Although this is an internal administrative ruling rather than an official judicial opinion by the 9th Circuit, it is a landmark as the first published opinion by sitting federal judges to hold that the OPM’s distinction between same-sex marriages and same-sex state-recognized domestic partnerships or civil unions for purposes of federal employee benefits is unconstitutional.   The Committee has administrative authority to order the court clerk to make a payment to Fonberg, whose clerkship ended early this year, to reimburse her for the expense incurred in obtaining insurance for her domestic partner, but it does not have jurisdiction to issue any kind of order to OPM, as the prior controversy in the Karen Golinski case made clear.  However, LGBT rights advocates may use this ruling to argue that OPM should change its non-recognition policy for domestic partnerships and civil unions as a logical extension of the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Windsor.

The issue may eventually become moot for federal employees in Oregon, however, as a petition drive is underway for a ballot initiative to repeal Oregon’s anti-marriage amendment and institute a marriage equality policy for the state.  In the meantime, of course, Oregonians can go next door to California or Washington to marry, and OPM will recognize their marriages for benefits purposes.

Chris Geidner of BuzzFeed was the first reporter to bring the 9th Circuit panel’s ruling to light and report on it on-line.

Obama Administration Files Amicus Brief in Opposition to Proposition 8

Posted on: March 1st, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments
On February 28, the Obama Administration weighed in on Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144, the pending challenging in the Supreme Court by the American Federation for Equal Rights (AFER) to California Proposition 8, by filing an amicus brief arguing that the Court should declare California’s constitutional provision limiting marriage to the union of a man and a woman to be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.    The government is the Petitioner in the companion case of United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, contesting the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which implicates many of the same constitutional issues, but it was not certain that the government would file a brief in Hollingsworth, and there was much lobbying and gay media pressure for them to do so, as a logical extension of  President Obama’s celebrated “evolution” on same-sex marriage last spring and certain statements from his Inaugural Address in January and State of the Union message in February.

The government needs to identify its interests in filing an amicus brief in a case to which it is not a party.  Here the government articulates two interests.  First, the government wants to achieve a consistent resolution of the level of scrutiny to apply to sexual orientation discrimination claims, referencing the simultaneous consideration of Windsor, in which the government is arguing for heightened scrutiny.  The brief points out that the government has submitted amicus briefs in the past when the Supreme Court was considering what level of review to give to an equal protection claim in a case brought by private litigants against a state or local government, as the government has an interest in the resolution of that question because some of its own programs and policies might be affected by the outcome.  That is certainly true here.  A holding on heightened scrutiny could affect the constitutionality of any federal law or policy that subjects gay people to unequal treatment, by making those laws presumptively unconstitutional and putting the burden on the government to justify them by showing that they substantially advance an important governmental interest. 

The brief also notes as a government interest that many of the arguments made by the Proponents in support of Prop 8 have also been made in support of DOMA Sec. 3, and thus the government has an interest in consistent resolution of those issues as well, because the Court’s treatment of them would affect the outcome in both cases. 

On the merits, the brief basically replicates the argument from the government’s Windsor brief about why heightened scrutiny is appropriate (but does so more concisely, with references to the other brief), and counters arguments to the contrary from Charles Cooper’s brief for Proponents of Proposition 8.   After pointing out that California law provides all the state law rights of marriage to same-sex couples and that Prop 8 does not withdraw any of those rights, the brief states, “Particularly in those circumstances, the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from marriage does not substantially further any important governmental interest.  Proposition 8 thus violates equal protection.”

In other words, the brief, as an amicus brief in support of the AFER plaintiffs (Respondents in the Supreme Court), focuses on whether Prop 8 is constitutional, not more broadly on whether states can deny same-sex couples the right to marry.  It is not pitched in the weight of its argument as a Romer-style “withdrawal of rights” case, and so it differs in this respect from the brief filed by the City of San Francisco.   Instead, its focus is on why there is no rational basis for giving same-sex couples all the rights of marriage and then denying them marriage itself.  It is implying that the same argument could be made in all the other civil union/domestic partnership states; that resisting the next step to marriage violates Equal Protection after a jurisdiction has determined that same-sex couples should have all the rights and benefits in a state-sanctioned status similar to marriage.  This would justify the government in submitting similar amicus briefs in the pending Hawaii and Nevada marriage cases, where the district courts have granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs and the cases are on appeal to the 9th Circuit.  (Illinois is different, since the litigation there is pending in a state trial court under the state constitution, but the substantive legal arguments would be the same.)  The brief lists the other states with civil union laws on page 11.  After listing them, the brief says: “The designation of marriage, however, confers a special validation of the relationship between two individuals and conveys a message to society that domestic partnerships or civil unions cannot match.”  Thus, without citing the opinion, this brief is really channeling the argument accepted by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Kerrigan v. State, when it ruled that Connecticut civil unions violated state equal protection and the state had to open up marriage to same-sex couples to cure the violation.

This is not a brief that overtly advocates that same-sex couples have the right to marry as such.  Rather, it advocates that if a state has resolved the policy issues in favor of providing the rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples, it violates equal protection for the state to nonetheless deny same-sex couples the right to marry.  And, focusing, as a brief in an actual case should, on the circumstances of the parties in the case, it argues that these particular circumstances, with the vote to amend the state constitution to end same-sex marriages, violates equal protection, as none of the arguments that were advanced in support of Prop 8 when it was enacted would suffice under heightened scrutiny to justify such unequal treatment for same-sex couples.  When heightened scrutiny is the correct standard of review, the defenders of Prop 8 are theoretically limited to the justifications presented to the voters in 2008, not the various “new” arguments thought up by their attorneys for this lawsuit, but the government argues that those “new” arguments – particularly the “accidental procreation” nonsense – won’t suffice as even a rational basis for Prop 8, since Prop 8 does nothing to change existing California family law, under which same-sex domestic partners have all the parental rights and responsibilities of married couples, and has no logical effect on the problem of “accidental procreation” by heterosexuals.

The government brief points out, as other briefs filed in the case do, that in a heightened scrutiny equal protection case, the question for the Court is whether the defenders of Prop 8 have made valid arguments that would justify excluding same-sex couples from marrying, not whether the government might have some reason to encourage different-sex couples to channel their procreative activities within marriage.  There is no logical connection between the two.

This is a subtly constructed brief.  The arguments it makes could well support a challenge de novo against a state DOMA or the failure of a state to provide marriage (whether or not the state has adopted civil unions/domestic partnerships), by arguing against the constitutional salience of the justifications argued on behalf of Prop 8 (and Sec. 3 of federal DOMA), but here those arguments are summoned specifically to support a consistent approach to the government’s position in the DOMA case and to knock the props out from under Prop 8.

It is helpful to have this brief on file making these arguments, because although it is similar in many respects to the arguments in AFER’s brief and the City of San Francisco’s brief, it provides a plausible alternative analytical route for the Court to strike down Proposition 8 without immediately invalidating all state DOMA laws and constitutional amendments.  However, its analysis of the level of scrutiny issue and of the arguments usually made in support of denying marriage to same-sex couples seem to preordain the outcome in favor of same-sex marriage rights in a case presenting the broader argument.  If a majority of the Court agrees with AFER’s arguments, we could have same-sex marriage nationwide immediately, but that seems a less plausible outcome.  If the Court agrees with the government’s argument in this amicus brief, it would strike down Prop 8, perhaps in an opinion that would send a clear signal to the 9th Circuit to rule for same-sex marriage in the Hawaii and Nevada cases and to all lower federal courts on the likely outcome of federal constitutional challenges in states with civil union laws or perhaps even any state with a DOMA.  Perhaps the result would not be as sweeping as Lawrence v. Texas (2003) was in the context of sodomy laws, but it could potentially have the same impact, and could accelerate the trend towards enactment of marriage equality laws by state legislatures, where efforts are now pending in several states.  

Counsel of Record for the brief is Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.  Other Justice Department lawyers listed on the brief are Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart F. Delery, Deputy S.G. Sri Srinivasan, Assistant to the S.G. Pratik A. Shah, and DOJ attorneys Michael Jay Singer, Helen L. Gilbert, and Jeffrey E. Sandberg.