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Monday, March 28, 2011

DOMA: Enforcing an Unconstitutional Law

Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. I am not alone in this view, with President Obama, Judge Joseph Tauro (D. Mass.) and many others on the left and right in my camp. But, even after announcing that the Department of Justice will no longer defend DOMA Section 3 because such laws fail heightened scrutiny, President Obama has rightly promised to continue enforcing DOMA Section 3 until it is either finally overturned by the Supreme Court or repealed in Congress. Today, I would like to consider what "enforcement" means.

DOMA Section 3 prevents the federal government from recognizing any marriage that is not between one man and one woman. It makes thousands of legally married same-sex couples strangers to more than 1000 federal rights that accompany opposite-sex marriages and injects the federal government into an area of family law traditionally and exclusively given to the States. Among other things, it denies benefits to same-sex spouses, prevents federal employees from putting their legally married same-sex partners on their health insurance and tears apart legally married same-sex binational couples. Recently, President Obama stated that he believes DOMA to be unconstitutional under heightened scrutiny and, therefore, refused to continue defending the statute in various challenges snaking their way through the federal courts. He did say that his Executive responsibilities required that his Administration continue enforcing the law.

What it means to "enforce" DOMA came into view this weekend. In a striking 180-degree turnaround, two U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) districts — Washington, D.C. and Baltimore — stated that departation cases in their districts involving married gay and lesbian couples would be put on hold. I was honored to be called by various media outlets to justify this policy change. How is this not an example of the Obama Administration declining to enforceDOMA, they asked?


The USCIS is part of the Executive Branch and it is unlikely that only two of the country's CIS districts would make this policy shift on their own, suggesting that they are likely operating under instructions from somewhere up the Executive change. Regardless, the decision to postpone deportations of legally married same-sex binational couples is undoubtedly in response to President Obama's decision on the constitutionality of DOMA.

But, if DOMA is what is standing in the way of a married same-sex foreign national being allowed to remain in this country like his or her married opposite-sex foreign national comrades, is not the indefinite postponing of deportation proceedings tantamount to, at a minimum, an indefinite postponement of the Executive's responsibility to enforce duly enacted laws?


Let us be clear about the policy. The USCIS offices statedthat alien relative petitions and green card applications filed by married same-sex couples will not be denied out of hand simple because of DOMA. Instead, the applications would be held in abeyance to allow for continued challenges to DOMA. As a leading gay immigration attorney has explained, "The significance of the 'abeyance' policy is two-fold: first, it means that petitions and applications that normally would have been denied because of DOMA, will now remain in 'pending' status, and second, this status will give protection and benefits to the applicant for an indefinite period."

In other words, the President's decision that DOMA is unconstitutional means that DOMA is no longer an a priori barrier to temporary reprieves from deportation. The CIS has not decided to stop enforcing DOMA; rather, it has decided not to tear apart loving, committed and legally married couples while DOMA's constitutionality is, at best, up in the air. DOMA still denies these couples thousands of federal benefits, but the CIShas come up with unique and creative strategies to at least keep married couples together while questions are answered. DOMA itself would not force deportation in these cases. The denial of an alien relative visa, pursuant to DOMA's discriminatory policy, would. All CIS has done is delay a final decision on alien relative petitions given the current challenges to DOMA. It sounds like an adequate compromise given the odious straight jacket DOMA forces upon us.

Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on March 28, 2011 at 02:54 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Current Affairs, Gender, Immigration, Law and Politics | Permalink


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Next, NAMBLA will have a constitutional right to Man-boy love right?

Posted by: The Last Man Standing | Mar 29, 2011 9:45:08 PM

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