October 19, 2012
By Scottie Thomaston
Yesterday the big news was the 2-1 decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Windsor v. USA striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, while at the same time (and for the first time in history) applying a heightened form of judicial scrutiny to laws that classify people on the basis of sexual orientation.
The lineup of judges in the outcome of the case is quite unusual.
The majority opinion was written by Judge Dennis Jacobs, a strongly conservative judge who has issued right-leaning opinions on issues like so-called “partial birth” abortion. And joined by Judge Christopher Droney, an appointee of President Obama.
The dissent was penned by a single judge, Judge Chester Straub, nominated to the circuit by President Clinton.
More below the fold…
As we wrote yesterday, the majority considered all the factors required to apply heightened judicial scrutiny – a standard of review the Justice Department believes is appropriate for classifications based on sexual orientation.
An aside here: equal protection principles protect people, not groups. All laws classify, and typically courts use the minimum standard to review their constitutionality: they consider whether the law is ‘rationally related’ to a ‘legitimate state interest.’ Usually, it’s easy for a law to pass this minimal form of review. It is mostly reserve for laws in the realm of economics, where judges give legislators a lot of room to regulate the economy and social programs as they see fit. But while all laws could be seen as “classifying” different groups, there are certain classifications of people that courts generally frown upon and look at with suspicion. That’s because when legislators write some laws to classify certain groups, there are likely to be discriminatory, racist, or sexist motives involved. These classifications face heightened forms of judicial scrutiny. There are different types. Under a heightened form of judicial scrutiny, importantly, the burden of proof shifts and the defendants of the law must prove the law is constitutional. When a classification is particularly harmful, as race is, it’s considered “suspect”, therefore, race is a “suspect class.” Suspect classifications, when considered by courts, are reviewed under the strictest form of judicial scrutiny, known as “strict scrutiny.” That’s because a very strict review of a law helps discern any inherently racial motive. Laws reviewed under that standard must be narrowly-tailored to a compelling government interest, and they must use the least restrictive means of protecting that compelling government interest. Needless to say, it’s difficult, but not impossible, for a law to survive that standard.
But for classifications based on sex and gender, the courts have applied an ‘intermediate’ level of judicial scrutiny. Under this standard, a law classifying people based on sex must be substantially related to an important government interest. It allows courts to look closer at laws that seem to be designed to group people based on their sex. This is the standard the Second Circuit has applied in Windsor. Intermediate scrutiny applies when a “quasi-suspect class” is involved, as opposed to simply a suspect class.
The appeals court looked at all the factors for a suspect classification and applied the standard. This is important at the Second Circuit, because they have never reviewed any other case in history in which they reached a decision on the level of scrutiny applied to sexual orientation. The circuit was essentially a ‘blank slate’ on that issue. Now it has a precedent applying this heightened form of scrutiny.
And the majority applied this form of review to Section 3 of DOMA and found it couldn’t pass. Notably, in its opinion, the majority even suggested that the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) who defended the law, all but conceded that the law may not pass heightened scrutiny.
The dissent takes issue with applying heightened scrutiny, and believes the court should have applied rational basis review. As he writes, under the standard he would have used, “courts look to any “conceivable basis” for the challenged law, not limited to those articulated by or even consistent with the rationales offered by the legislature.” And under this view, the plaintiffs, not the legislators, have to prove that the law is irrational. The judge says that no other circuit has applied heightened scrutiny, nor has the Supreme Court.
The dissenting judge analyzes all the proffered rational bases for the law: procreation, child-rearing, preserving the public fisc, the traditional definition of marriage, and suggests that any one of these could serve as a rational basis for the law.
Importantly, though, the majority opinion notes that it doesn’t take issue with the dissent’s contention that Section 3 of DOMA would pass rational basis; it reviewed the law under a heightened form of scrutiny, and the law failed under that standard.
Moreover, in his view, “[t]he discrimination in this case does not involve a recognized suspect or quasi-suspect classification. It is squarely about the preservation of the traditional institution of marriage and its procreation of children.”
He suggests, “[m]arriage today, according to the federal government, means what it has always meant—a15holy union, essential to the survival of the species, between a man and a woman, the principal16purpose of which is to encourage responsible child rearing.”
The judge agrees with BLAG that Baker v. Nelson forecloses any challenge to the definition of marriage. Baker, a one-sentence summary dismissal of a state same-sex marriage case in 1972, is seen as a bar to many of these challenges: the judge in Hawaii’s marriage case Jackson v. Abercrombie applied it; the judge in Sevcik v. Sandoval in Nevada strongly hinted at the initial hearing that he believes it is controlling, though there is no opinion yet in that case. But in other DOMA challenges (and indeed in the majority opinion in this case) and in Perry, the Prop 8 case, judges have held that Baker does not apply for various reasons: the ‘precise’ issues must be present in order to apply it, and it does not apply as forcefully if newer precedent has eroded it.
The dissenting judge views the state’s definition of marriage, and the claims presented in the Baker case as exactly the same as this DOMA challenge. And the judge writes that subsequent precedents like Lawrence or Romer have not eroded the case because they either had nothing to do with it or explicitly, in his view, disavowed it. (In Lawrence, Justice Kennedy has a line in his opinion that says it should not be read to change the definition of marriage.)
Ultimately, the judge would (much like the judge in Jackson v. Abercrombie) leave the decision up to the political process, “[w]hether connections between marriage, procreation, and biological offspring recognized by DOMA and the uniformity it imposes are to continue is not for the courts to decide, but rather an issue for the American people and their elected representatives to settle through the democratic process. Courts should not intervene where there is a robust political debate because doing so poisons the political well, imposing a destructive anti-majoritarian constitutional ruling on a vigorous debate. Courts should not entertain claims like those advanced here, as we can intervene in this robust debate only to cut it short.”
The dissent seems to ignore one aspect of accepting that classifications based on sexual orientation are suspect that was considered and accepted by the majority: the relative political powerlessness of gays and lesbians. That was discussed in the briefs, after expert testimony was given at district court. Though the majority opinion notes that gays and lesbians have gained more rights and more power, they note that is not the standard to judge political powerlessness. Gays and lesbians have lost many fights in ballot initiatives, and there is still no ENDA. There are more openly gay judges, but no high level gay cabinet appointees. So one wonders how the idea of leaving it up to the political process squares with the political powerlessness of gays and lesbians.