Connect with us

National

Can Obama stop enforcing DOMA?

Experts divided as legal challenges loom

Published

on

President Obama (Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement
7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Steve

    March 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    If the executive stops enforcing DOMA, then there can be no challenges in court, and no judge will have the opportunity to declare it unconstitutional. Individuals can only get standing to challenge the statute after they have been harmed by an enforcement action. The distinction is that they will not defend the statute. So, after an individual gets to court with a challenge, the executive will stand down, and the judge will be given the case to decide that DOMA is unconstitutional…. I know it’s a fine point, but the standing to challenge is important.

    • James

      March 3, 2011 at 7:07 pm

      The President took an oath to uphold the constitution and has rightly made it clear that he will continue to enforce DOMA until such time as the courts make a final decision on whether it is constitutional. While the Department of Justice approach raises some concerns there is validity to the DOJ not defending something they believe is unconstitutional. The question could be raised as to why the DOJ is not going to actively oppose DOMA since they believe it is unconstitutional.

  2. r spry

    March 3, 2011 at 2:02 am

    This is a really bad precedent. If he gets away with this, any executive can. Everyone knows, even a speeding ticket will get thrown out of court if the police don’t show up. All laws passed by the congress and signed by a president are challenged in court in attempts to overthrow. Roe V Wade? Obamacare? If this precedent stands and we get a conservative president next, he/she could decide not to defend? This is an impeachable offense…he took an oath to defend the law. He doesn’t decide the law.

  3. K in VA

    March 3, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Get your damned facts straight: Obama’s still enforcing DOMA (don’t believe me? try filing jointly next month). What he’s stopped doing is arguing in court that the law’s constitutional.

    There’s a big difference. But if our own press can’t even get facts right, I don’t see how we can possibly expect accurate reporting from the national press.

    Jeez …

  4. Chuck Anziulewicz

    March 3, 2011 at 10:06 am

    The Obama Administration is getting a lot of criticism from social conservatives for ending its defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). However, if part of President Obama’s job is to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” he made the right call.

    There was never any point in defending something as clearly unconstitutional as DOMA. This law sets up differing legal standards for Gay and Straight couples, thus violating the 14th Amendment. Because of DOMA, even Gay couples who are legally married in Iowa or Massachusetts are unrecognized by the federal government for the purposes of tax law and Social Security.

    Also, unlike married Straight couples, married Gay couples become “UN-married” if they move across state lines, so DOMA violates the “Full Faith & Credit” clause.

    Heck, even a lawyer with the American Family Association has admitted that DOMA is “probably unconstitutional.” Details are here:
    http://www.advocate.com/News/Daily_News/2011/03/01/AFAs_Lawyer_Says_DOMA_Is_Unconstitutional

    By its own actions, the federal government has made marriage a federal issue. Most of the legal benefits of marriage are bestowed by the federal government. You can argue about religion and parenthood until the cows come home, and it will not negate the fact that there is simply no constitutional justification for denying law-abiding, taxpaying Gay couples the same legal benefits that Straight couples have always taken for granted.

  5. Tim

    March 5, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Much like Dorothy always had the power to go back to Kansas, Obama has always had the power to stop enforcing DOMA.

  6. Brian Summers

    March 8, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    What gets me is the fact that Bush did the exact same thing with bills he didn’t approve of and the conservatives didn’t make anywhere near the level of fuss they’re making with Obama over this. Sorry, but I can’t help finding that just a tad ironic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

National

In a historic first, Colorado now has a 1st gentleman as Gov. Polis marries

The governor and his now husband decided to hold their nuptials on the 18th anniversary of their first date

Published

on

Governor Jared Polis and 1st Gentleman Marlon Reis exchange vows (Screenshot via CBS News Denver)

DENVER – Colorado’s Democratic Governor Jared Polis married his longtime partner Marlon Reis in a ceremony that marked the first same-sex marriage of a sitting Out governor in the United States.

The couple was married Wednesday in a small traditional Jewish ceremony at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Reis had matriculated and graduated from. The governor and his now husband decided to hold their nuptials on the 18th anniversary of their first date.

“We met online and went out on a date and we went to the Boulder bookstore and then went to dinner,” Polis told KCFR-FM, Colorado Public Radio (CPR).

In addition to family and close friends in attendance, the couple’s two children participated with their 7-year-old daughter serving as the flower girl and their 9-year-old son as the ring bearer.

The governor joked that their daughter was probably more thrilled than anyone about the wedding. “She was all in on being a flower girl. She’s been prancing around. She got a great dress. She’s terrific,” he said CPR reported.

Their son was also happy, but more ambivalent about it all according to Reis. “Kids are so modern that their responses to things are sometimes funny. Our son honestly asked us, ‘Why do people get married?”

Colorado’s chief executive, sworn in as the 43rd governor of Colorado in January 2019, over the course of nearly 20 years as a political activist and following in public service as an elected official has had several ‘firsts’ to his credit.

In 2008 Polis is one of the few people to be openly Out when first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as well as being the first gay parent to serve in the Congress. Then on November 6, 2018, he was the first openly gay governor elected in Colorado and in the United States.

********************

Gov. Jared Polis And First Gentleman Marlon Reis Are Newlyweds

Continue Reading

National

U.S. Catholic theologians call for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections

Joint statement says church teachings support equality

Published

on

More than 750 of the nation’s leading Catholic theologians, church leaders, scholars, educators, and writers released a joint statement on Sept. 14 expressing strong support for nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

The six-page theological statement, “A Home for All: A Catholic Call for LGBTQ Non-Discrimination,” was scheduled to be published along with the names of its 759 signatories as a four-page advertisement on Sept. 17 in the National Catholic Reporter, a newspaper widely read by Catholic clergy and laypeople.

The statement was initiated by New Ways Ministry, a Mount Rainier, Md., based Catholic group that advocates for equality for LGBTQ people within the church and society at large.

“As Catholic theologians, scholars, church leaders, writers, and ministers, we affirm that Catholic teaching presents a positive case for ending discrimination against LGBTQ people,” the statement says. “We affirm the Second Vatican Council’s demand that ‘any kind of social or cultural discrimination…must be curbed and eradicated,’” it says.

“We affirm that Catholic teaching should not be used to further oppress LGBTQ people by denying rights rooted in their inherent human dignity and in the church’s call for social equality,” the statement adds.

The statement notes that its signers recognize that a “great debate” is currently taking place within the Catholic Church about whether same-gender relationships and transgender identities should be condoned or supported.

“That is a vital discussion for the future of Catholicism, and one to which we are whole-heartedly committed,” the statement continues. “What we are saying in this statement, however, is relatively independent of that debate, and the endorsers of this statement may hold varied, and even opposing, opinions on sexual and gender matters,” it says.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministries executive director, said his organization and the signers of the statement feel the issue of nondiscrimination for LGBTQ people can and should be supported by Catholic leaders and the church itself even if some are not yet ready to support same-sex marriage and sexual and gender identity matters.

“LGBTQ non-discrimination is being debated at all levels in our society, and the Catholic perspective on this is often misrepresented, even by some church leaders,” DeBernardo said. “Catholics who have studied and reflected deeply on this topic agree that non-discrimination is the most authentic Catholic position,” he said. 

DeBernardo said those who helped draft the statement decided it would be best to limit it to a theological appeal and argument for LGBTQ equality and non-discrimination and not to call for passage of specific legislation such as the Equality Act, the national LGBTQ civil rights bill pending in the U.S. Congress.

The Equality Act calls for amending existing federal civil rights laws to add nondiscrimination language protecting LGBTQ people in areas such as employment, housing, and public accommodations. The U.S. House approved the legislation, but the Senate has yet to act on it.

“We wanted this to be a theological statement, not a political statement,” DeBernardo said.

He said organizers of the project to prepare the statement plan to send it, among other places, to the Vatican in Rome and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has expressed opposition to the Equality Act.

Among the key signers of the statement were 242 administrators, faculty, and staff from Sacred Heart University, a Catholic college in Fairfield, Conn. New Ways Ministries says the statement was circulated by the school’s administration and eight of its top leaders, including President John Petillo, are among the signers.

Some of the prominent writers who signed the statement include Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking;” Richard Rodriquez, author of “Hunger of Memory;” Gary Wills, author of “Lincoln at Gettysburg;” and Gregory Maguire, author of “Wicked.”

The full text of the statement and its list of signatories can be accessed at the New Ways Ministry website.

Continue Reading

National

Activists reflect on Black Trans Lives Matter movement resurgence

Blade speaks with Alex Santiago, Jasmyne Cannick

Published

on

An I Am Human Foundation billboard along Atlanta's Downtown Connector expressway on Feb. 22, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The world came to a standstill last year as a video surfaced online that showed then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. The video went viral and sparked numerous protests against racism and police brutality in the U.S. and around the world as many people felt it a potent time to relay their frustrations with and to their governments.

For the LGBTQ community, these protests brought to light the need for human rights for transgender individuals as the murders of people like Tony McDade in Florida and Nina Pop in Missouri reawakened the flame within the Black Trans Lives Matter movement.

A tribute to Tony McDade in downtown Asheville, N.C., in June 2020. McDade was a Black transgender man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Tallahassee, Fla., on May 27, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Washington Blade more than a year later spoke with Alex Santiago, executive director of the I Am Human Foundation in Atlanta, and Jasmyne Cannick, a Democratic political strategist and journalist in Los Angeles, to reflect on last year’s Black Trans Lives Matter movement, how far it has come, and what’s in store for the future. 

Uplifting voices often silenced

Participating in the Black Lives Matter protests was an easy decision for Santiago. He is a member of the Legendary House of Garcon, a ballroom house headquartered in D.C. 

Although the house is composed mostly of LGBTQ members, Santiago still felt the need to center trans voices and experiences by visually representing them during Black Lives Matter marches. 

“[I decided that] when I go I’m going to have signs that say ‘Black Trans Lives Matter.’ After talking to a couple of the people in the house, they said it was a great idea. So, they got these t-shirts made that incorporated the trans colors [baby blue, baby pink and white],” says Santiago.

Out of the 250 people in the Legendary House of Garcon, 175 showed up to D.C. from other states to march in solidarity with Black trans people. Santiago says that from what he was told, his was the largest group of activists representing Black trans lives at protests. 

“At first I thought people were going to look at us crazy, like, ‘Why are you separating yourselves or being exclusive?’. But, we got a great response from the general population that was there that day. It was a good day,” says Santiago.

Cannick, who was in Los Angeles during the protests, lent her efforts to platforming pertinent issues. She identifies herself as an ally and a “friend” to the LGBTQ community. 

“I’m active in the LA community and everybody knows me. So, whenever something happens, someone is hurt, someone is killed or someone needs to get the word out about something that’s going on particularly as it relates to the trans community, I’m always asked to get involved, and I do,” says Cannick. 

Over the past year, she reported on multiple LGBTQ issues including the trial of Ed Buck, a Democratic political fundraiser who was convicted in the deaths of two gay Black men who he injected with methamphetamine in exchange for sex.

What happened to the BTLM movement and what needs to change?

The nature of many social movements is that as the intense emotion surrounding them fades, people’s fervor for change wanes as well. This is especially true with allies who are not directly linked to the cause.

“Fatigue and frustration at the relatively slow pace of change to a growing backlash on the right against efforts to call out systemic racism and white privilege — has led to a decline in white support for the Black Lives Matter movement since last spring, when white support for social justice was at its peak,” US News reports about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cannick believes this is the same for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. She says Americans allow the media to dictate how it behaves and responds to issues. Thus, when stories “fall out of our media cycles … they fall out of our memories.”

“I think that’s not going to change, and that’s a psychological thing, until we learn how to not let the media necessarily dictate our issues,” says Cannick. 

She suggests that individuals remain plugged into their communities by “doing anything to make sure they keep up with an issue” including following the “right people” on social media and setting up Google alerts for any breaking news. 

Jasmyne Cannick (Photo courtesy of Jasmyne Cannick)

Santiago also echoes Cannick’s sentiments. 

“We wait until something happens before we do something. And, I don’t want to be retroactive; I want to be proactive. I want people to see me when things are going well [and when they’re not going well],” says Santiago. 

Upon returning to his home in Atlanta after the D.C. protests, Santiago contacted a billboard installation company and paid for a billboard labelled, “Black Trans Lives Matter” to be displayed on University Avenue near downtown Atlanta. He says that the billboards got attention and helped to spread much-needed awareness. Following this success, he is now in the process of installing a new billboard labelled, “Black, Trans and Visible. My life Matters.”

“Unless you’re in people’s faces or something drastic happens, people forget. Unless you’re living it, people forget,” says Santiago.

As time progresses, both Santiago and Cannick nest hope for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. However, this hope can only persist when crucial steps are taken to ensure Black trans individuals around the country are protected, most importantly through legislation.

The New York Times reports there are close to 1,000 elected LGBTQ officials in the U.S., with at least one in each state except Mississippi. 

“We need to have more legislation. We need more voices in power like the council Biden has right now,” says Santiago. 

“You know that [Biden] has a lot of trans people and Black trans people [involved], and a part of that’s a positive step in the right direction, but we need that times 10,” says Santiago.

He believes that political representation should extend to local governance where ordinary Black trans individuals can be trained to assume leadership roles. 

Cannick’s focus is on the Black community. 

“[Trans women] are usually murdered by Black men. If we ever expect that to change, we need to start talking about that,” says Cannick.

She’s open to having conversations that put people, including her as a cis-identifying woman, in uncomfortable and awkward spaces. 

She hosts a podcast titled “Str8 No Chaser” and recently aired an episode, “Why Are Black Men Killing Trans Women,” where she discussed with three Black trans women about the gender and sexuality dynamics within the Black community and their perils. 

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular