U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, sitting in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Wichita Falls, issued an order on March 26 requiring the U.S. Department of Labor to stay the implementation of a new regulation that changes the definition of “spouse” under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to include same-sex couple, wherever they reside, who were married in a jurisdiction that allows same-sex marriages. State of Texas v. United States of America, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38264. Judge O’Connor’s order was part of a preliminary injunction awarded to the states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska, who joined together as co-plaintiffs in a case originally filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
It was unclear from the court’s order whether the regulation was stayed in all of its applications, or just as applied to the state government acting as employers. It was also unclear whether it would apply just to the four co-plaintiff states, or to all states that do not presently recognize same-sex marriages.
The Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted during the Clinton Administration in 1993, requires employers with 50 or more employees to make unpaid leave available for certain purposes to full-time employees after they have completed a year of service. The FMLA also applies to state governments acting as employers.
Family leave could include time off to take care of a spouse or child with health problems. The statute defined “spouse” as “a husband or wife, as the case may be.” Regulations proposed by the Labor Department in 1993 provided that “spouse” means “a husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in states where it is recognized.” In 1995, the Department published a “final rule” making clear that the law of the state where an employee resides would control for purposes of determining spousal status.
After the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, the federal government came under the constitutional obligation to recognize legally-married same-sex couples. However, many states withhold such recognition, and the existing FMLA regulation would thus withhold the federal benefit entitlement from married same-sex couples living in states that did not recognize their marriages.
The Labor Department proposed to solve this problem by issuing a new regulation, changing the definition of “spouse” to include all legally-married same-sex couples, regardless where they live. The proposed regulation was published in the Federal Register, comments were received and studied, and a final rule was published in the Federal Register, to go into effect on March 27.
Texas Attorney General Paxton’s lawsuit claimed that the Labor Department could not change the definition of spouse for state government employers. For one thing, he argued, Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Supreme Court did not address in its DOMA decision, specifically provides that states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. For another, he argued, the Supreme Court’s ruling acknowledged that states are entitled to decide who can marry and whose marriages will be recognized within their borders. According to this reading of the case, U.S. v. Windsor, Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional because Congress does not have authority to withhold recognition for federal purposes of marriages that states allow and recognize. This is the view, argued by Chief Justice John Roberts in his concurring opinion, that Windsor is essentially a “federalism” case. It’s a view that Justice Anthony Kennedy specifically disclaimed in his opinion for the Court, however, and the question of how to characterize that decision is a topic of lively debate among legal scholars and lower court judges.
Paxton argued that the Labor Department can’t order Texas through a regulation to recognize marriages contrary to the Texas Constitution and statutes, especially when that regulation conflicts with Texas’s right, under Section 2 of DOMA, to refuse to recognize the marriages.
Although there is a respectable body of scholarly opinion that Section 2 of DOMA is unconstitutional, and many federal courts, including four circuit courts of appeals, have ruled that states are required to recognize legally contracted same-sex marriages, the Supreme Court will not speak on the merits of these issues until it rules in Obergefell v. Hodges, most likely in June after the April 28 oral argument in Washington.
Until then, Judge O’Connor pointed out, the district court is bound by existing precedents in the 5th Circuit. Although a panel of the 5th Circuit heard arguments in several marriage equality appeals early in January, it has yet to issue a decision. Since prior 5th Circuit precedents mandate that trial judges in the circuit use the most deferential standard of judicial review when considering laws that discriminate because of sexual orientation, and Section 2 of DOMA is still in effect, Judge O’Connor concluded that a state government employer cannot be compelled by a federal regulation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
This is only a preliminary injunction, and Judge O’Connor cautioned that upon a full consideration of the merits there might a different conclusion, especially if that takes place after either the 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court rules on pending marriage equality cases. So this stay may turn out to be a temporary road-bump on the path to equal treatment for married same-sex couples living in states that don’t recognize their marriages.
Although Judge O’Connor’s legal analysis concluded that the Labor Department could not by regulation order states to recognize same-sex marriages, his stay was phrased in more general terms: “The Department of Labor must stay the application of the Final Rule, pending a full determination of this matter on the merits.” This might just mean that for now the rule does not apply to government workplaces in Texas and the other plaintiff states, but can go into effect for other workplaces. That’s what it should mean to be consistent with the court’s reasoning. The test will come when a private sector employee in Texas requests FMLA leave to care for a same-sex spouse, is turned down, and seeks vindication in the courts. But the entire problem may disappear when the Supreme Court rules in June.