Amid a frenzy of new marriage equality lawsuits making their way to the Supreme Court, some LGBT advocates say continued participation from the Obama administration in litigation would boost their chances for success.
One advocate eager for the administration to continue its participation in litigation seeking marriage equality is Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry.
“There are 20-some freedom to marry cases underway around the country now, including the two in Virginia, and President Obama’s and the Justice Department’s support for the freedom to marry and constitutional guarantees should absolutely be part of all of them,” Wolfson said.
Because the Obama administration isn’t a party to any of the lawsuits pending, under ordinary circumstances the administration would participate by filing a friend-of-the-court brief before the courts.
But at this stage, some legal experts who spoke to the Washington Blade are taking a more passive stance on whether the Obama administration should take part, saying they’d “welcome” help from the administration’s lawyers without issuing an overt call for action.
Ted Olson and David Boies, the legal duo that brought marriage equality to California by challenging Proposition 8, articulated this view during a conference call with reporters last week when asked by the Washington Blade if they want the administration’s support in Bostic v. Rainey, the lawsuit in Virginia they joined last week.
Boies, the Democratic half of the legal team representing the American Foundation for Equal Rights, said the administration’s participation would be welcome because “the views of the administration are important.”
“Exactly when they will get involved and how they will get involved and what stage they will get involved is something that is obviously up to the administration,” Boies said. “Whether they will decide to wait until we get to the Supreme Court or express views earlier is up to them. But whenever they come in, their support would be welcome.”
Boies’ comments during the conference call follow an endorsement of participation from the Obama administration in his lawsuit during a National Press Club event earlier in the day.
Echoing that sense was Olson, the Republican half of the legal duo that presented the case against Prop 8 during oral arguments before the Supreme Court.
“To have the president’s imprimatur on this issue is so very, very important to the court,” Olson said. “There are institutional reasons for why the Justice Department with the president gets in cases at particular times and we’ll wait till what they decide the right time is, but we very much welcome their support in this case.”
The administration has taken part in previous marriage lawsuits. When the case against Prop 8 came before the Supreme Court, the Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of plaintiffs and sent U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli to take part in oral arguments before the Supreme Court.
Although the administration didn’t argue the U.S. Constitution guarantees marriage rights for gay couples nationwide, it did contend Prop 8 was unconstitutional and suggested states that offer domestic partnerships should have to afford full marriage rights to gay couples.
The administration’s participation in cases against the Defense of Marriage Act has been more extensive. After announcing it would no longer defend the law in court, the administration filed briefs against the anti-gay law and sent Justice Department lawyers to argue against it in district courts, appellate courts and the Supreme Court.
The Bostic case is but one pending marriage equality lawsuit. According to a tally provided by Lambda Legal, there are 35 marriage lawsuits before 19 states. Just last week, Lambda filed an additional federal lawsuit seeking marriage equality in West Virginia.
Suzanne Goldberg, a lesbian and co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, said the involvement from the administration in the marriage lawsuits would reinforce that “the lives of all Americans are deeply affected when states discriminate actively against some of their constituents.”
“The Justice Department’s participation puts additional moral force behind the claims for equality and fairness that gay and lesbian couples make in these cases,” Goldberg continued. “In that sense, the federal government’s participation in state law challenges can be important and helpful, but even if it does not participate, it is also important and helpful that the administration is on record decrying the injustice of unequal marriage rules.”
But the sense that the Obama administration should file additional friend-of-the-court briefs in the marriage lawsuits isn’t universal.
Roberta Kaplan, a lesbian attorney at Paul & Weiss who argued against DOMA before the Supreme Court, said she’s unsure additional friend-of-the-court briefs are necessary.
Courts already know the Justice Department’s position in the aftermath of the Perry case, Kaplan said, and filing additional briefs in every marriage lawsuit out there would be “frankly, a logistical pain in the butt for them.”
“What they said in Perry pretty much answers the question,” Kaplan said. “Frankly, a court knows what their position is because they’ve said it. It’s the same issue…There should be no mystery to anyone what their position is.”
Kaplan said if the administration would participate, chances are it would happen at the appellate or Supreme Court level.
“I’m sure at the Supreme Court, when and if one of these cases gets up there, they will be asked to participate and they will,” Kaplan said. “At the appellate courts, I think it pretty much depends on which case and whether they’re going to have a policy of putting in the same brief in 20 different cases that all say the same thing when they’ve already done it once.”
The Justice Department hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment. The answering machine at the public affairs line says it will respond to calls in the aftermath of the government shutdown.
The administration may not be able to participate in a marriage equality case as long as the government remains closed. According to the shutdown plan on the Justice Department website, civil litigation, the category of litigation for marriage lawsuits, will be “curtailed or postponed.”
“Litigators will need to approach the courts and request that active cases, except for those in which postponement would compromise to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property, be postponed until funding is available,” the website states. “If a court denies such a request and orders a case to continue, the government will comply with the court’s order, which would constitute express legal authorization for the activity to continue.”
But if the Obama administration were to file a brief in a marriage case before an appellate court, the one for which the opportunity is coming soon is in the case challenging the same-sex marriage ban in Nevada known as Sevcik v. Sandoval. The case, filed by Lambda, is pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals and is one of the cases that has thus far advanced the furthest. Friend-of-the-court briefs are due Oct. 25.
Lisa Hardaway, a Lambda spokesperson, said the attorney working on the case would welcome support from the administration.
“Tara Borelli, our lead attorney on the Sevcik matter, says that we would welcome a brief from the Obama administration,” Hardaway said.
Considering Lambda in the Sevcik case is arguing the ban on same-sex marriage in Nevada is unconstitutional because the state is relegating gay couples to second-class domestic partnerships, the case seems like a natural fit for an administration that has previously said all civil union states should offer marriage to gay couples.
But Kaplan said the more interesting question is whether the administration will articulate a response in the marriage lawsuits that are contending a state must recognize a same-sex marriage from another jurisdiction. Among these cases is Whitewood v. Corbett, the marriage lawsuit pending in Pennsylvania.
“I think the more interesting issues are, frankly, like when the issues come up about recognition…of marriages in states that don’t permit,” Kaplan said. “That at least presents a different question than something they’ve already put out.”
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said “it goes without saying” that he shares Olson and Boies’ views and predicted the Obama administration would come on board based on its previous actions and stated commitment to LGBT rights.
“The administration not only stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act, as you know, but weighed in as we all hoped they would, and encouraged them to, in the Prop 8 case, going the distance there in that case before the Supreme Court,” Griffin said. “And again, we’re just announcing this case today and it still has a distance to go, but I’m optimistic that at the right time, the administration will be there in support of this.”