Citing an executive-branch duty to defend acts of Congress when plausible arguments exist that they are constitutional, the Obama administration had previously argued that legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act should be dismissed.
But those lawsuits were filed in circuits that had precedents saying that when gay people say a law infringes on their rights, judges should use a test called “rational basis” to evaluate that claim. Under that standard, the law is presumed to be constitutional, and challengers must prove that there is no conceivable rational government basis for enacting it, a hard standard for challengers to meet.
But the new lawsuits were filed in districts covered by the appeals court in New York. That court has no precedent establishing which legal test judges should use when evaluating claims that a federal law violates gay people’s rights.
That vacuum meant that the administration’s legal team had to perform its own analysis of whether gay people were entitled to the protection of a test known as “heightened scrutiny.” Under that test, it is much easier to challenge laws that unequally affect a group, because the test presumes that such laws are unconstitutional, and they may be upheld only if the lawmakers’ purpose in enacting them served a compelling governmental interest.
The announcement today does not overturn the law. That would take an act of Congress or a final finding by the judicial branch, probably the Supreme Court. But it changes the vector of the legal cases considerably. Privately, the administration believes that five justices of the Court, including Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote, would find parts or most of DOMA invalid if the federal government withdrew its arguments in defense of it.
Under these conditions, it becomes much more likely that DOMA will be struck down by at least one federal Court of Appeals-- possibly the Second Circuit, where the latest cases are being brought--and therefore even more likely that DOMA will be struck down when it finally gets to the Supreme Court. All of my previous predictions as to how constitutional challenges to DOMA will go forward must be revised.
Why is that? Why does a change in the official position of the Administration matter to federal judges? The answer is that when the President and the Justice Department change their minds publicly and take a new constitutional position, it gives federal courts cover ...
The Administration's decision to switch sides does not by itself guarantee what the lower federal courts or the Supreme Court will do. But it adds to the weight of social forces moving toward the recognition of equal rights for gays and lesbians....
Nothing is certain. But this announcement is very, very important as a symbolic matter. ...
When big constitutional changes come, it is usually the result of a series of events that cumulatively change America's constitutional culture. This is one of those events, and it is quite an important one.