The announcement from President Obama last week that he believes Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and that he will no longer defend the law in court is raising questions about whether he can further help the LGBT community by discontinuing enforcement of the law.
Dan Pinello, who’s gay and a government professor at the City University of New York, said he believes Obama has the authority to stop enforcing Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, now that he has deemed the statute unconstitutional.
“If an order came down from the White House to start treating married same-sex couples like married opposite-sex couples, I think that would be honored in terms of bureaucrats sitting up and doing what he says,” Pinello said. “A president can seek not to enforce a statute if he believes, legally and otherwise, it’s unconstitutional.”
In the past, presidents have declined to enforce laws that they believe are unconstitutional, but such situations are rare. President Woodrow Wilson ignored a statute that conditioned removal of postmasters on Senate approval. In 1926, the Supreme Court struck down the the law as unconstitutional without making any suggestion that Wilson overstepped his boundaries by not enforcing the statute.
In 1994, then-U.S. Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger wrote a memorandum to then-White House Counsel Abner Mikva asserting the president “may appropriately decline to enforce a statute that he views as unconstitutional.”
“As a general matter, if the President believes that the [Supreme] Court would sustain a particular provision as constitutional, the President should execute the statute, notwithstanding his own beliefs about the constitutional issue,” Dellinger writes. “If, however, the President, exercising his independent judgment, determines both that a provision would violate the Constitution and that it is probable that the Court would agree with him, the President has the authority to decline to execute the statute.”
But the memorandum examines whether a president can decline to enforce a statute in terms of whether the president has authority not to uphold a law recently approved by Congress. Dellinger states that if Congress is making progress toward passing a law that the president believes is unconstitutional, the White House should “promptly identify unconstitutional provisions and communicate its concerns to Congress.”
Such a situation would be different from what happened with DOMA, when the president determined the statute was unconstitutional nearly 15 years after a Republican Congress passed the bill and then-President Clinton signed it into law.
Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said there is “significant dispute” over whether a president can unilaterally decline to enforce a statute.
“When a president simply refuses to enforce the law, it’s not always clear that there is anyone who would have the legal ability to sue to require him to do so,” Davidson said. “This ability to exercise unilateral authority is troubling to many scholars.”
Still, Davidson noted that precedent exists for presidents to decline to enforce particular laws. For 25 years following its enactment in 1968, he said, every president refused to enforce a law seeking to make the Miranda case inapplicable to federal prosecutions until the courts struck down the law. Similarly, Davidson said numerous presidents refused to abide by laws allowing for legislative vetoes of presidential action, such as the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
For its part, the Obama administration seems intent on maintaining enforcement of DOMA even though the president has deemed it unconstitutional. In the case of Golinski v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management — concerning U.S. Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s order to give court employee Karen Golinski benefits for her same-sex spouse — the Obama administration reiterates that it plans to continue enforcement of DOMA.
Kozinski ordered the U.S. government to answer questions about its continued refusal to offer Golinski federal benefits in light of its decision that DOMA is unconstitutional. On Monday, the Justice Department responded to Kozinski by saying that Obama is obligated to continue to enforce the law until either Congress repeals the statute or the courts strike it down.
“The President has determined that Executive agencies will continue to enforce Section 3 of DOMA, a course of action that accords appropriate deference to the Congress that enacted DOMA and allows the judiciary to be the final arbiter of DOMA’s constitutionality, as stated by the Attorney General,” the Justice Department states. “Moreover, as discussed, the Executive Branch has fulfilled its statutory obligation to notify Congress of the decision not to defend the statute and is committed to urging the courts to provide Congress with a full and fair opportunity to participate in the litigation of DOMA cases.”
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama plans to continue to enforce DOMA even though he’s decided no longer to enforce the statute in court.
“Consistent with past practice when a president determines and announces publicly that a law is unconstitutional, the president has directed the Department of Justice to cease defending the law in court,” Inouye said. “Until there is a final determination by the courts of the law’s validity or it is repealed by Congress, however, it remains the law of the land and the president will continue to enforce it as such.”
Many legal experts who are LGBT advocates are wary of the prospects of the president declining to enforce a statute — even one as harmful to married same-sex couples as DOMA — simply on the basis that Obama deems the law unconstitutional.
Nan Hunter, a lesbian law professor at Georgetown University, said no one believes more strongly than she that DOMA is unconstitutional, but cautioned against having the president stopping to enforce DOMA because “you have to look beyond your nose when you’re thinking about the ramifications of these sorts of decisions.”
“We do not want to live in a country in which the president can declare statutes to be unconstitutional because he doesn’t like them,” Hunter said. “That’s really not a place where any of us should want to live.”
To support the idea of a president ceasing to enforce a statute because the administration believes it’s unconstitutional, Hunter said she wants to see a guiding set of principles that would allow Obama to stop enforcing the statute while being consistent with the rule of law.
“I think everyone agrees that the criteria would have to be extremely limited so that such a situation would be extremely rare,” Hunter said. “Maybe someone could persuade that this fits into that very limited criteria, but I just haven’t heard any.”
Richard Socarides, president of the media watchdog group Equality Matters, said given the history of DOMA, the Obama administration would be “hard pressed” to decide unilaterally to stop enforcing DOMA.
“I just think it would be disruptive to the normal order of things,” Socarides said. “I’m sure that their lawyers made pretty convincing arguments that the more orderly way to do this was to await a definitive ruling from the court, which should be fairly quickly forthcoming based upon the government’s new position.”
Amid this debate, another LGBT advocate is drawing on the recent change in how the Obama administration is handling DOMA to press the administration to exercise prosecutorial discretion in cases involving bi-national same-sex couples.
Lavi Soloway, an attorney with Masliah & Soloway PC in New York, is representing three married, same-sex bi-national couples in New York, New Jersey and California who are facing deportation proceedings.
Alex Benshimol and Doug Gentry are scheduled for a July 13 hearing in San Francisco; Monica Alcota and Cristina Ojeda are scheduled for a March 22 hearing in New York; and Henry Velandia and Josh Vandiver scheduled for a May 6 hearing in Newark, N.J. Each of the American spouses in these cases has filed green card petitions on behalf of their foreign national partners, although DOMA prevents American nationals from sponsoring their partners.
“We intend to argue as a result of the shifting position of the executive branch with respect to DOMA that it’s appropriate for the immigration judges and also for the attorneys that represent the Department of Homeland Security to exercise what’s called prosecutorial discretion, which simply means exercising more discretion in how to proceed with these cases,” Soloway said.
In the three pending cases, Soloway is asking for judges to consider changes that were made to how the Obama administration is handling DOMA in court and to put off deportation proceedings until another time when different relief of legal options may be available. According to Soloway, if anyone in these cases is deported, they won’t be able to return to the United States for another 10 years, even if DOMA is repealed or overturned sometime before then.
“I’m calling on the Department of Homeland Security … to develop reasonable innovative policy to deal with the particular moment that we’re in,” Soloway said. “We’re just in a very short-term moment where things are in a state of flux. I’m not asking them to stop enforcing any law; this is part of enforcing the law.”