House Democratic leaders are continuing to criticize Speaker John Boehner for defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court and accuse him of going beyond his existing authority ahead of his planned intervention in a lesbian veteran’s litigation against the statute.
In a letter dated March 30, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) write to the speaker to express concern about Boehner intervening on behalf of DOMA in the case of Cooper-Harris v. United States.
“This latest decision not only ignores the civil rights of LGBT Americans but opens a new, direct assault on veterans,” Pelosi and Hoyer write. “The men and women of our Armed Forces serve with courage and dignity on behalf of our safety and security. They risk their lives for the country they love – and they should not face prejudice at home because of whom they love. These brave soldiers deserve nothing less than our gratitude, our respect, and the benefits they have earned in battle.”
On Feb. 1, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit against DOMA in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris, who’s seeking benefits as a disabled Army veteran her spouse, Maggie Cooper-Harris. The two were married in California in 2008 before Proposition 8 took effect.
Boehner’s attorney’s has yet to file the intervention, but the Washington Blade has obtained documents revealing their intent to intervene in the lawsuit. Informed sources are expecting a formal filing of the intervention next week.
Boehner will be defending not just DOMA in court, but Title 38, a law governing veteran benefits that as written precludes same-sex married couples from obtaining benefits. It’s the first time the speaker has elected to defend this statute in addition to DOMA.
In a letter last month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder notified Congress that the Obama administration would no longer defend portions of Title 38 related to same-sex couples as it has with DOMA.
It’s taking on defense of Title 38 that Pelosi and Hoyer belief are beyond Boehner’s authority. In the letter, the lawmakers request a formal Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group vote on defending Title 38 and ask that any extension of the existing legal contract receive prior examination by the Committee on House Administration and the House Ethics Committee.
Brendan Buck, a Boehner spokesperson, issued a statement saying the speaker’s intervention in the case against Title 38 is aligned with House rules.
“It was determined through consultations with each office — the process used to make such decisions regularly under then-Speaker Pelosi — that a majority of the BLAG believes the constitutionality of this statute, which the Attorney General described as ‘identical in material respect to the language of Section 3 of DOMA,’ should be determined by the judicial branch, not through a unilateral decree of the President,” Buck said.
Tracey Cooper-Harris was diagnosed in 2010 with multiple sclerosis, and the Department of Veterans Affairs has determined is connected to her military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, She’s been receiving disability benefits as a veteran, but is unable to receive spousal benefits that she would otherwise be entitled to if she were in an opposite-sex marriage. Among them are disability benefits meant to ensure the financial stability of spouses.
Christine Sun, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said her organization is pleased House Democratic leaders are taking interest in its lawsuit.
“We are pleased that Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are getting involved in the Cooper-Harris case and standing with veterans,” Sun said. “It is astonishing that Rep. John Boehner and his colleagues are continuing this shameful crusade against our brave men and women in uniform and is nothing short of disgusting.”
After the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend DOMA in court last year, Boehner directed House General Counsel Kerry Kircher to defend the statute after BLAG voted 3-2 on a party-line basis to take up defense of the law.
According to Leader Pelosi’s office, the Cooper-Harris case marks the 12th time Boehner has intervened to defend. Earlier this week, officials testified this week that House defense of DOMA thus far has cost $742,000, although Boehner has raised the cost cap to $1.5 million.
The full text of Pelosi and Hoyer’s letter to Boehner follows:
March 30, 2012
The Honorable John Boehner
Speaker of the House of Representatives
United States Capitol
H-232, The Capitol
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Mr. Speaker:
Today, we were notified that the House, through outside counsel acting at your direction, has decided to intervene in a case challenging the constitutionality of laws denying federal benefits to military spouses on the basis of their sexual orientation. As members of the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), who were not consulted prior to this unwise decision, we strongly object to spending taxpayer money to intervene in this case against a decorated veteran, Tracey Cooper-Harris, and her spouse, Maggie Cooper-Harris. This decision clearly exceeds the scope of the original BLAG authorization, with which we initially disagreed.
This intervention once again puts the House of Representatives on the wrong side of the future – supporting discrimination, unfairness, and the denial of basic equality to all Americans. We have objected to prior decisions by the House Republican BLAG members to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to defend discrimination. This latest decision not only ignores the civil rights of LGBT Americans but opens a new, direct assault on veterans. The men and women of our Armed Forces serve with courage and dignity on behalf of our safety and security. They risk their lives for the country they love – and they should not face prejudice at home because of whom they love. These brave soldiers deserve nothing less than our gratitude, our respect, and the benefits they have earned in battle.
The plaintiffs in Cooper-Harris v. U.S. argue that federal law, including Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 1 U.S.C. § 7, and portions of the Veteran’s Benefits title of the United States Code, 38 U.S.C. § 101(3) and (31), denies them equal protection under the law by failing to uphold our promises to our servicemembers to care for them and their families. We agree, and note that the U.S. Department of Justice has notified Congress that Section 3 of DOMA – as well as the definitional portions in Title 38 dealing with military and veterans’ benefits – “cannot be constitutionally applied to same-sex couples who are legally married under state law.” We applaud the decision of the Attorney General against defending indefensible discrimination.
Federal district courts have already deemed DOMA unconstitutional, and the Justice Department will not defend the law. We call upon the Republican members of the BLAG to rescind your unilateral decision to expand your defense of DOMA to cases involving veterans. If you insist upon continuing this costly and wasteful use of hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds, we request: (a) a formal vote of the BLAG on extending your defense of discrimination to veterans and their families, and (b) any extension of the existing legal contract, any new contract, and any additional expenditure of public funds on behalf of outside counsel receive full prior examination by the Committee on House Administration and the House Ethics Committee.
We look forward to receiving your response to this and the several previous letters from House Democrats on this subject.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
NANCY PELOSI STENY H. HOYER
Democratic Leader Democratic Whip