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HISTORIC: Supreme Court hears arguments on DOMA

Issues of standing, discrimination against gays dominate hearing

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Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade
gay marriage, same sex marriage, marriage equality, Roberta Kaplan, Defense of Marriage Act, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

Attorney Roberta Kaplan said DOMA violates equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution for not just Windsor, but all married gay couples. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Questioning at the Supreme Court during oral arguments on Wednesday was just as intense as the previous day as justices grilled attorneys on standing and federalism issues related to the Defense of Marriage Act.

The prospects of the court striking down the 1996 law seem strong as no justices expressed any particular love for DOMA, but it’s possible the court may not reach consideration of the constitutionality of the law because of standing and jurisdiction issues.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton appointee, expressed concern over DOMA because benefits — including Social Security survivor benefits and access to family medical leave — and withheld from married same-sex couples under the law.

Under DOMA, Ginsburg said one might ask the question “What kind of marriage is this?” and compared the law to a statute that creates “full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage.”

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee who’s considered a swing vote in the case, made a lot of inquiries on DOMA, but at one point may have tipped his hand when he talked about the “real risk” of encroaching on state power to define marriage.

At issue in the case is Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. As a result of that 1996 law, Edith Windsor had to pay $363,000 in estate taxes in 2009 upon the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer.

The courtroom was just as packed for the DOMA arguments as it was for the Prop 8 arguments. Among those in attendance were Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, Senior Adviser to President Obama Valerie Jarrett and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Roberta Kaplan, a New York-based private attorney working in coordination with the American Civil Liberties Union, said DOMA violates equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution for not just Windsor, but all married gay couples.

“Because of DOMA, many thousands of people who are legally married under the laws of nine sovereign states and the District of Columbia are being treated as unmarried by the federal government solely because they are gay,” Kaplan said.

Arguing on behalf of DOMA was Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush who was hired by House Republicans to defend the law after the Obama administration declined to do so in February 2011.

Clement said DOMA helps create uniformity for the federal government as the democratic process is underway deciding the issue of marriage.

“I do think for purposes of the federalism issue, it really matters that all DOMA does is take this term where it appears in federal law and define it for purposes of federal law,” he said. “It would obviously be a radically different case if Congress had, in 1996, decided to try to stop states from defining marriage in a particular way or dictate how they would decide it in that way.”

At one point, Associate Justice Elena Kagan brought up the House report from the passage of DOMA, quoting where it said Congress approved the law to “express moral disapproval of homosexuality.”

Clement responded by saying legislators having an “improper motive” shouldn’t be enough for the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA.

“And if that’s enough to invalidate the statute, then you should invalidate the statute,” Clement said. “But that has never been your approach, especially under rational basis or even rational basis-plus, if that is what you are suggesting.”

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who’s taken up litigation against DOMA on behalf of the Obama administration, also argued against DOMA on the basis of equal protection.

“What Section 3 does is exclude from an array of federal benefits lawfully married couples,” Verrilli said. “That means that the spouse of a soldier killed in the line of duty cannot receive the dignity and solace of an official notification of next of kin.”

Further, he said DOMA should be subject to heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption it’s unconstitutional, because of the “terrible discrimination” faced by gay people throughout history.

Verrilli also disputed Clement’s argument that DOMA helps ensure uniformity for the U.S. government, saying “if anything, it makes federal administration more difficult.”

Standing was so much of an issue as part of the DOMA case that justices allotted extended time and the first half of the oral arguments to consider the issue.

There are two questions: whether House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group has standing to defend DOMA in court, and whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear the case because the U.S. government appealed even though it got what it wanted when the district ruled against the anti-gay law.

Vicki Jackson, a Harvard law professor hired by the court to answer these questions, made her case for why BLAG doesn’t have standing and the court doesn’t have jurisdiction to decide the issue.

Jackson said the U.S. government lacks standing to appeal because it has not asked the court to overturn lower courts’ decisions, it has asked to affirm them.

“The government has not asked this court to overturn the rulings below so it doesn’t have to pay the $365,000,” Jackson said. “It has asked this court to affirm. And the case or controversy requirement that we’re talking about are nested in an adversarial system where we rely on the parties to state their injuries and make their claims for relief.”

She also expressed doubts about BLAG’s standing, saying separation of powers “will not be meaningful” if Congress stays out of defense of a statute unless it thinks the executive branch is doing its job badly.

Clement maintained BLAG has standing because the House has an interest in preserving a law if the executive branch determines it won’t defend the measure in court.

“The House’s single most important prerogative, which is to pass legislation and have that legislation, if it’s going to be repealed, only be repealed through a process where the House gets to fully participate,” Clement said.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an Obama appointee, expressed skepticism that BLAG has standing to defend DOMA in court.

“But the appointment of BLAG is strange to me because it’s not in the statute, it’s in the House rules,” Sotomayor said.

Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinavasan argued the court has jurisdiction to defend DOMA, pointing to court precedent created under INS v. Chadha, an immigration-related case that came before the court in 1982. Srinavasan also said the U.S. government still suffers aggreivement, which allows it to appeal the case.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia expressed displeasure with the Justice Department’s decision to stop defending the law and creating a situation where it’s appealing a case that was decided in its favor.

“I’m wondering if we’re living in this new world where the attorney general can simply decide, yeah, it’s unconstitutional, but it’s not so unconstitutional that I’m not willing to enforce it, if we’re in this new world, I don’t want these cases like this to come before this court all the time,” Scalia said.

It’s difficult to say if the court will rule on the basis of standing because justices challenged the views on whichever attorney was speaking — whether they arguing in favor of standing or not. A ruling on this basis would likely more limited on its impact on gay couples as opposed to a nationwide ruling striking down DOMA.

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Federal Government

Lambda Legal praises Biden-Harris administration’s finalized Title IX regulations

New rules to take effect Aug. 1

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (Screen capture: AP/YouTube)

The Biden-Harris administration’s revised Title IX policy “protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse,” Lambda Legal said in a statement praising the U.S. Department of Education’s issuance of the final rule on Friday.

Slated to take effect on Aug. 1, the new regulations constitute an expansion of the 1972 Title IX civil rights law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the department’s revised policy clarifies that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitutes sex-based discrimination as defined under the law.

“These regulations make it crystal clear that everyone can access schools that are safe, welcoming and that respect their rights,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

The administration’s new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were widely seen as imbalanced in favor of the accused.

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during Thursday’s call that the department sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

“We applaud the Biden administration’s action to rescind the legally unsound, cruel, and dangerous sexual harassment and assault rule of the previous administration,” Lambda Legal Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project Director Sasha Buchert said in the group’s statement on Friday.

“Today’s rule instead appropriately underscores that Title IX’s civil rights protections clearly cover LGBTQ+ students, as well as survivors and pregnant and parenting students across race and gender identity,” she said. “Schools must be places where students can learn and thrive free of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.”

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Michigan

Mich. Democrats spar over LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law

Lawmakers disagree on just what kind of statute to pass

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Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride month in 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (House Bill 4474), a first offense would be punishable with a $2,000 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is six years in prison and a fine of $7,500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. State Rep. Noah Arbit, the bill’s sponsor, was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (House Bill 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (House Bill 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (Senate Bill 600) in March that includes much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from the Washington Blade to both Arbit and Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The attorney general’s office sent a statement to the Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBTQ-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70 percent from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and was due for a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

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Indiana

Drag queen announces run for mayor of Ind. city

Branden Blaettne seeking Fort Wayne’s top office

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Branden Blaettner being interviewed by a local television station during last year’s Pride month. (WANE screenshot)

In a Facebook post Tuesday, a local drag personality announced he was running for the office of mayor once held by the late Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who died last month just a few months into his fifth term.

Henry was recently diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer and experienced an emergency that landed him in hospice care. He died shortly after.

WPTA, a local television station, reported that Fort Wayne resident Branden Blaettne, whose drag name is Della Licious, confirmed he filed paperwork to be one of the candidates seeking to finish out the fifth term of the late mayor.

Blaettner, who is a community organizer, told WPTA he doesn’t want to “get Fort Wayne back on track,” but rather keep the momentum started by Henry going while giving a platform to the disenfranchised groups in the community. Blaettner said he doesn’t think his local fame as a drag queen will hold him back.

“It’s easy to have a platform when you wear platform heels,” Blaettner told WPTA. “The status quo has left a lot of people out in the cold — both figuratively and literally,” Blaettner added.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported that state Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, who has led the Indiana House Democratic caucus since 2018, has added his name to a growing list of Fort Wayne politicos who want to be the city’s next mayor. A caucus of precinct committee persons will choose the new mayor.

According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the deadline for residents to file candidacy was 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. A town hall with the candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday at Franklin School Park. The caucus is set for 10:30 a.m. on April 20 at the Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field.

At least six candidates so far have announced they will run in the caucus. They include Branden Blaettne, GiaQuinta, City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, former city- and county-council candidate Palermo Galindo, and 2023 Democratic primary mayoral candidate Jorge Fernandez.

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