September 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
GOP att’y strongly defends DOMA in N.Y. widow’s lawsuit
Edith Windsor, gay news, Washington Blade

Edith ‘Edie’ Windsor testifies in her Federal Court case against DOMA. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

NEW YORK CITY — The House Republican attorney defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court took particular issue on Thursday with an octogenarian lesbian’s case against by the law by suggesting the timing and location of her marriage makes challenge invalid.

Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general under the Bush administration, claimed before a federal appeals court that Edith Windsor doesn’t have a case because she married in Canada and her spouse, Thea Spyer, died in 2009 — two years before New York legalized same-sex marriage.

“The critical question isn’t 2012, the critical question is 2009,” Clement said.

Clement added that the issue of whether the marriage is sufficient for a challenge against DOMA should be brought to certification before the New York Court of Appeals, the highest state court in New York.

James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, told the Blade after the oral arguments that Clement was “grasping at straws” when making these claims.

“There’s clear law in New York that New York in 2004 recognized the marriages of same-sex marriage performed in Canada and in other states that allowed same-sex couples to marry,” Esseks said.

Esseks acknowledged that the high court in New York hasn’t affirmed those marriages, but said that three lower courts have recognized those marriages as legitimate as well as the governor and attorney general.

“There’s just no debate about it; It’s quite clear,” Esseks said. “I think we heard from the court today — it’s difficult to make any predictions — but based on what I heard from the court, I don’t think that that’s how the court’s going to decide this question. They’re not going to duck the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage by saying we’re not sure whether she’s actually married or not.”

James Esseks, Edith Windsor, Second Circuit Court, New York City, Washington Blade, gay news, DOMA, Defense of Marriage Act

Edith Windsor (right) speaks with the ACLU’s James Esseks to reporters following oral arguments in the Second Circuit (Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

A three-judge panel on the appellate court heard from three attorneys during oral arguments in the case, known as Windsor v. United States. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Windsor, who was forced to pay $363,000 in estate taxes upon the death of her spouse because of Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

The panel consisted of Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush; Judge Chester Straub, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton; and Judge Christopher Droney, who was appointed by President Obama.

It’s the second time a federal appellate court has considered the constitutionality of DOMA. In April, the U.S. First Circuit of Appeals heard oral arguments in the consolidated case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services. On May 31, the appeals issued a decision against DOMA as result of that consideration.

Lawyers presented before the Second Circuit starkly different views on the the Defense of Marriage Act on Thursday before judges reviewing Windsor’s challenge to the anti-gay law, which was passed by Congress in 1996.

In addition to questioning whether Windsor has standing, Clement, who’s DOMA in court on behalf of the House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, drew upon the cases of Baker v. Nelson, a 1972 Minnesota case seeking the legalization of same-sex marriage that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear for lack of substantive federal question.

Clement acknowledged the case is 40 years old and times may have changed since then, but added, “The only thing that hasn’t changed is this court’s obligation to follow Supreme Court precedent.”

Plaintiffs in the case had another view. Roberta Kaplan, partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, argued against DOMA on behalf of Windsor, saying the law be struck down because states can already decide on their own what decisions to make about who can marry within their borders.

“The problem supposedly solved by uniformity is a problem that our federalist principles have already dealt with,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan added the case against DOMA isn’t about any federal right to marry because even with the law in place, gay couples haven’t been discouraged from marrying across the country, nor have they been discouraged from adopting.

Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery, who’s gay, assisted in the litigation against by presenting arguments on behalf of the Obama administration, saying the court should strike down because of the long history of discrimination against LGBT people — including the criminalization of homosexuality and being barred from military service.

“Sexual orientation is a fundamental part of person’s identity that says nothing about a person’s ability to contribute to society,” Delery said.

Questions from judges hit on several topics, although the questioning from didn’t reveal much in terms of what how they’d rule in the case. Many inquiries were posed about the extent to which gays and lesbians enjoy political power within the U.S. government. Opponents of DOMA have argued the anti-gay law is unconstitutional because gays and lesbians lack political power, but BLAG contends the LGBT community has significant influence.

Asked by Jacobs about whether the test of political power is whether gays and lesbians have any power at all or whether power is diminished, Clement replied, “I think it’s the former, and I don’t think it’s not a overwhelmingly difficult test. … It’s a matter of whether you get the attention of lawmakers.”

Clement pointed to a friend-of-the-court brief signed by 145 House Democrats filed in the case on behalf of plaintiffs as evidence that the LGBT community has influence over the political process as he asserted the LGBT community should look to the legislative process to repeal DOMA, saying “This is an issue that could be left to the Democratic process.”

But Kaplan said the 30 marriage amendments that passed in state throughout the country are evidence that gay and lesbians are politically powerless, even though she emphasized these amendments have no bearing on the case at hand against DOMA.

The degree of scrutiny under which laws related to sexual orientation should face before the courts also came up the during the hearing. Judges asked whether they should overturn DOMA on the basis that such laws should be subjected to strict scrutiny, or more intermediate level of heightened scrutiny or be examined under a rational basis review. The level of scrutiny they apply could have implications on court cases related to sexual orientation.

In the event the court decided to rule against DOMA, Clement said the court asked the court not to apply heightened scrutiny, noting it would be the first appellate court to do so because the First Circuit Court of Appeals when struck down DOMA in May under rational basis review.

Kaplan said she was arguing for the higher level of review called strict scrutiny as opposed to the more intermediate heightened scrutiny because “being gay or lesbian is closer to being African-American than being a woman.” Laws related to gender have been subjected to heightened scrutiny, but laws related to race have been subjected to strict scrutiny.

But Delery didn’t articulate the same view, saying he was arguing against DOMA on the basis that it violated heightened scrutiny. While he acknowledged arguments could be made that DOMA fails rational basis, he wouldn’t commit to saying that should be struck down under that standard.

Another question for Delery, which came from Droney, was why the Justice Department had appealed the Windsor to the Second Circuit even though his side won at the district court level when U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones ruled against the law. Delery provided a explanation, prompting Droney to quip that the Justice Department must have a predilection for seeking appellate court rulings in all cases, eliciting laughter from those in attendance at the hearing.

Yet another question was raised by Jacobs on whether withholding benefits from gay couples with the intention of saving money for the federal government is a good enough constitutional reason to keep DOMA in place. Kaplan denied this assertion and said saving money isn’t sufficient rationale unless it’s coupled with another justification.

But Clement pounced on these remarks in the rebuttal allotted to him at the end of the oral arguments, saying preserving federal coffers are absolutely a good reason to preserve DOMA and Congress was “preserving the scope of the benefits programs the way they’ve always been.”

Clement also during his rebuttal asserted that Congress has acted in other areas besides gay and lesbian with regard to marriage. He noted lawmakers have acted to protect against fraud, and, going back to the 19th Century, require states to prohibit polygamy so territories like Utah could enter into the union.

Following the oral arguments, Windsor appeared outside the court building to speak with reporters. Windsor, who recently turned 83, said, “I look forward to the day when the federal government will recognize the marriages of all Americans, and I am hopeful that this day will come during my lifetime.”

Windsor further invoked the memory her deceased spouse — with whom she shared a life for 40 years — saying she believes she’s was present in the court in spirit and “would have been so proud to see how far we’ve come.”

Now that oral arguments are done, judges will confer to determine the steps they’ll take in the case and the process that will lead to them making a decision. There’s no set time for when they have to make a ruling; it could be a matter of days, months or a year.

The ACLU’s Esseks said he wasn’t in a position to predict in what way judges would rule as a result of what was said during the oral arguments.

“Lawyers never want to predict the outcomes,” Esseks said. “There are some arguments that you come out of and you’re like I’m willing to take a guess here. This argument didn’t give me clear sense one way or the other. I wouldn’t be surprised about a win and I wouldn’t be shocked about a loss either.”

Windsor’s attorneys and the Justice Department have asked the Supreme Court to take up the Windsor case for consideration. If the Supreme Court accepts the request, the high court would take up jurisdiction of the lawsuit and the Second Circuit proceedings would be halted.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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