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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Federalism and DOMA

I've already seen some confusion about whether it's fair to describe Justice Kennedy's opinion in Windsor as relying on "federalism." Compare, for example, the majority opinion ("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") with the Chief Justice's dissent ("I think the majority goes off course, as I have said, but it is undeniable that its judgment is based on federalism.") with Scalia's ("Even after the opinion has formally disclaimed reliance upon principles of federalism, mentions of the 'usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage' continue.  What to make of this?").

It seems to me that the answer is: Windsor is an equal protection decision to which federalism is relevant, both because it shores up the interest on Windsor's side and it diminishes or eliminates many of the interests on the federal government's side.  In this way, Kennedy's opinion is in keeping with Judge Boudin's opinion for the First Circuit in Gill, which did something similar, and is like the arguments I discuss at the beginning of my DOMA article.

The confusion arises from some terminological confusion that began at oral argument.  One "federalism" argument was the one that Kennedy and Boudin subscribe to-- that federalism influences the strength of the equal protection claim.  But there was also a very different federalism argument made in an amicus brief for Ernie Young and other federalism scholars-- that DOMA is unconstitutional as a matter of enumerated powers and state sovereignty, independent of the discrimination issue.  That question, Justice Kennedy declines to speak to. ("It is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance.").

One other thing while I'm at it.  Today's scenario -- DOMA unconstitutional, state laws intact for now -- means that same-sex couples and the federal government now have to confront a series of complicated and difficult choice of law questions (as Justice Scalia points out in dissent, and as I wrote about last year).  The immediate consequences will depend a lot on what the executive branch does (and especially whether it tries to coordinate its agencies' different positions on choice of marriage law) and how the courts react.  As Justice Kennedy said in explaining why the Court needed to decide this case:

The district courts in 94 districts throughout the Nation would be without precedential guidance not only in tax refund suits but also in cases involving the whole of DOMA’s sweep involving over 1,000 federal statutes and a myriad of federal regulations. ... Rights and privileges of hundreds of thousands of persons would be adversely affected ...; the cost in judicial resources and expense of litigation for all persons adversely affected would be immense. ... the costs, uncertainties, and alleged harm and injuries likely would continue for a time measured in years before the issue is resolved.

The same could be said about the undecided choice of law issues. That said, it's still not too late for Congress to repeal DOMA and replace it with a choice of law rule. And perhaps the administration has a plan for how to deal with the fallout.  Otherwise, it's about to become a lot more interesting to be a choice of law scholar.

Posted by Will Baude on June 26, 2013 at 01:45 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Judicial Process | Permalink


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We actually made both of the federalism arguments that Will mentions in our brief, not just the enumerated powers point. After all, the Court granted cert on the equal protection question and not on some of the more direct federalism questions presented in CA1 and CA2. The equal protection version also answers those critics who think the Feds always have the power to define the terms in their statutes. I'm not sure that they do always have that power, but in any event the enumerated powers principle certainly does limit the interests that the Feds can assert in defense of their definitions against a rights challenge.

Posted by: Ernie Young | Jun 28, 2013 9:46:01 AM

Ernie Young's position is nuts. The EP "federalism" argument is about respecting the dignity of states in their domain, and I'd hardly call it a federalism argument at all. Yes, she has a stronger interest because her state has recognized her marriage, and the fact that this is an area Congress tends not to touch suggests there might be bad motives afoot, but that's really a different kind of thing.

Posted by: anon | Jun 26, 2013 10:26:21 PM


I think we might agree. The abstract federalism principles are the same, but the two arguments cache out in ways that are very differently doctrinally. The interaction between the doctrinal categories and the abstract federalism principles is what seems to have led to the confusion.

Posted by: William Baude | Jun 26, 2013 9:35:09 PM

I do not think that the use of federalism to inform the interpretation of the Fifth Amendment is all that different from the use of federalism to inform the interpretation of Article I or any other enumerated powers. As I note in my own post, Kennedy bobbled the question by claiming not to rely on "principles of federalism," but he obviously did so in invoking states' presumptive power over marriage. Ernie's brief speaks to those principles on the general level that Kennedy clearly used in the first pages of his opinion. The fact that Kennedy decided to invoke these principles as a gloss on one constitutional provision rather than another does not, i think, make the arguments all that different from each other -- although the implications of the arguments are, of course, quite different.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 26, 2013 3:08:09 PM

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