The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Doing a Little Justice

Years ago, when I was an appellate attorney at Legal Aid, if one of the more senior attorneys saw us heading out to an oral argument, he would wish us well, saying "Go do a little justice!" That remark seems apt today, as the Supreme Court, at the end of a term where it wreaked some pretty significant injustice, lived up to my old colleague's admonition.

In United States v. Windsor, the Court struck that abomination of the 1990s, the "Defense of Marriage Act" as unconstitutional in an opinion by Justice Kennedy. The Court explained its ruling:
Against this background DOMA rejects the long-established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State, though they may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next. Despite these considerations, it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance. The State’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case quite apart from principles of federalism. Here the State’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. When the State used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in this way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community. DOMA, because of its reach and extent, departs from this history and tra- dition of reliance on state law to define marriage. “ ‘[D]is-criminations of an unusual character especially sug- gest careful consideration to determine whether they are obnoxious to the constitutional provision.’ ” Romer v. Evans, 517 U. S. 620, 633 (1996) (quoting Louisville Gas & Elec. Co. v. Coleman, 277 U. S. 32–38 (1928)).

The Federal Government uses this state-defined class for the opposite purpose—to impose restrictions and dis- abilities. That result requires this Court now to address whether the resulting injury and indignity is a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment. What the State of New York treats as alike the federal law deems unlike by a law designed to injure the same class the State seeks to protect.

DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. See U. S. Const., Amdt. 5; Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U. S. 497 (1954) . The Constitution’s guarantee of equality “must at the very least mean that a bare con- gressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot” justify disparate treatment of that group. Depart- ment of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U. S. 528–535 (1973). In determining whether a law is motived by an improper animus or purpose, “ ‘[d]iscriminations of an un- usual character’ ” especially require careful considera- tion. Supra, at 19 (quoting Romer, supra, at 633). DOMA cannot survive under these principles. The responsibility of the States for the regulation of domestic relations is an important indicator of the substantial societal impact the State’s classifications have in the daily lives and customs of its people. DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages. This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class. The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.
The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State. DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.
I am delighted to see this repudiation of unequal treatment under the law. Period.

Perhaps it's ignoble, but after his joining yesterday's farcical opinion striking down a statute explicitly authorized to be enacted by the 15th Amendment, I found Justice Scalia's strident paean to the virtues of judicial restraint to be both hypocritical and laughable. His belated effort to strike a tone of neutrality ("But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better") are utterly lacking in credibility after his prior culture war statements in the very same opinion.

So too am I glad to see that the nosiome Proposition 8 buried; although I would have preferred a merits ruling, I really expected at best the standing decision we in fact got. At least this leaves the very strong District Court opinion as the last word.

After a term of mostly disappointments, at least the closing day ended by doing a little justice. And about time, too.

No comments: