BOSTON — There was optimism in the air outside the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse after advocates seeking to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act emerged from the first-ever appellate hearing on the constitutionality of the law.
Nancy Gill, the lead plaintiff in one of the cases before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, said she “absolutely” thinks she’s on the cusp of seeing the end of the anti-gay statute prohibiting federal recognition of her marriage.
“It’s definitely going to happen,” Gill told the Washington Blade. “We can’t fathom how anybody can make an argument against a relationship that’s 31 years old. We’ve been married for eight, have two children. We add to society, and we just want to make sure that we have the same rights and protections that our other married friends have.”
Gill, a postal worker who married her spouse, Marcelle Letourneau, in 2004 after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, is suing the federal government on the basis that DOMA unfairly precludes them from obtaining health insurance and pensions afforded to other federal workers.
The Washington Blade interviewed several individuals outside the courtroom following the court hearing on Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services, filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Speaking to reporters, Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s civil rights project director, reiterated some of the arguments she made against DOMA during the oral arguments when she contended that DOMA violates the equal protection rights of her plaintiffs. Bonauto was lead counsel in the Goodridge case that led to the 2003 legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.
“Nobody’s trying to throw stones here but Congress wasn’t at its best for this,” Bonauto said. “They are supposed to act neutrally when it comes to the rights of people, but Congress couldn’t have been clearer that it disapproved of gay people and did not want them to have the same protections everyone else has. We all come before our government as equals, and it needs a reason other than ‘I don’t like you’ to treat people differently, especially on such a massive scale.”
Coakley expressed confidence the court would strike down DOMA after her deputy Maura Healey presented the argument that DOMA was unconstitutional on the basis that it violates state’s rights under the Tenth Amendment.
“I can’t speak for the judges, and I’m sure they will look at all the arguments fairly, but when you look at the thinness of the legal argument on the other side and really the emotional and real fact-based arguments made by the plaintiffs, I’m confident that Judge Tauro will be upheld,” Coakley said.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro, a Nixon appointee, ruled against DOMA in 2010 in the two cases that are now before the appellate court on the basis that the anti-gay law fails the rational standard basis of review. The cases were brought to the First Circuit upon appeal.
Paul Clement, the former U.S. solicitor general whom House Speaker John Boehner hired to defend DOMA, wasn’t seen outside along with plaintiff couples and attorneys. Fresh from arguing against the health care law before the Supreme Court, Clement appeared to argue on behalf of DOMA and was set to argue in favor of the controversial Arizona immigration law later this month.
Clement bore the brunt of disparaging comments from LGBT advocates after the hearing for arguments he made in court. Among them, his claims that opposite-sex marriages are beneficial because they’re the only union that can produce children. He also said DOMA allows the federal government to stay out of the way while states decide the issue of same-sex marriage.
Dean Hara, another plaintiff in the GLAD case, said he thought Clement talked about DOMA in “abstract terms” that didn’t show the anti-gay law has a real effect on same-sex couples seeking federal benefits.
“It was the same arguments that they have used before,” Hara said. “If something has always been that way, it shouldn’t change, and I don’t think that’s a valid argument in anything. much less marriage.”
Hara, the widower of the late Rep. Gerry Studds, is suing the federal government to obtain the Social Security survivor benefits he would have been able to receive had he been in an opposite-sex marriage.
“I never thought that I would be a plaintiff challenging the Defense of Marriage Act — much less did I ever think that I’d be at the Court of Appeals where we are now,” Herra said. “We’ve come a long ways.”
Lavi Soloway, co-founder of Stop the Deportations and an immigration attorney at Masliah & Soloway, was also dismissive of the arguments that Clement brought before the three-judge panel hearing the case.
“I was surprised by the weakness of the arguments put forward by BLAG,” Soloway said. “I felt that they did not acquit themselves very well of the obligation that was placed upon them by the House Republicans to defend the statute. Their defense was very weak.”
Soloway isn’t a party to any of the DOMA cases that were brought before the First Circuit, but has advocated against the anti-gay law on the basis that it threatens to tear apart married bi-national same-sex couples living in the United States — some of whom are his clients.
One development during the hearing that pleased Soloway was the Justice Department’s Stuart Delery announcement that he wouldn’t defend DOMA on a rational basis standard of review if judges should examine it on that basis. The Justice Department had previously said it wouldn’t defend the anti-gay law because it doesn’t pass muster under heightened scrutiny.
“In the First Circuit, there’s an open question as to whether heightened scrutiny would be applied in this case,” Soloway said. “Mr. Delery for the Department of Justice informed the court that the government’s position is that the Defense of Marriage Act fails under rational basis.”
What the court will ultimately decide remains to be seen. Paul Smith, who delivered the arguments before the Supreme Court for Lawrence v. Texas, was present during the oral arguments for the appeals court and said he’s “not really able to predict” the outcome of the cases. He’s a pro-bono counsel for the GLAD case.
“The court was listening closely to everyone,” Smith said. “They were somewhat surprisingly not asking very many questions except of Mr. Clement. You’re not always sure how to read that, but we come away very hopeful.”
Soloway said he thinks “there’s a strong chance” judges will uphold Tauro’s ruling from 2010, although he expects an appeal.
“I don’t know that the rationale will be the same,” Soloway said. “I think that the attorneys for the congressional Republicans will seek an en banc hearing, and will, of course, ultimately appeal to the Supreme Court.”