Legal Expert Explains DOMA Ruling

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Lydia Lavelle, an assistant professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law who calls Athens her hometown, breaks down the complicated decision of the United States Supreme Court Wednesday in finding Section 3 the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.

This is one of two cases the Court addressed on Wednesday. The second is finding that the Proposition 8 case from California could not be decided by the Court because the proper parties were not part of the case.

Lavelle has interpreted the DOMA case in plain English to help enhance understanding.

The Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, by a 5 to 4 decision, found Section 3 of DOMA, passed by Congress in 1996, violates due process and equal protection rights guaranteed to Americans under the constitution – specifically the Fifth Amendment.

To ultimately arrive at that decision, the Court had to first find that the parties had “standing” to bring the legal action. Standing is necessary for the Court to have jurisdiction to even decide the case. Standing was not a certainty in this case.

President Barack Obama refused to defend the statute. Instead, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives (BLAG) jumped in to do so. “In essence, Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General, wrote a letter to Congress stating that the President would not defend cases challenging

DOMA that originated in states that permitted same-sex marriage,” Lavelle said. “In short, the President believed the law to be unconstitutional.”

However, the President was duty-bound to enforce the law – which led to the ultimate controversy in this matter.

The Supreme Court could have dodged this case based on possible lack of standing, according to Lavelle. But, the Court found that there was a need to address this matter head-on.

A second point is that the Supreme Court, in its lengthy decision, chided Congress, Lavelle says for “overstepping” its authority to define marriage. Congress created its own definition of marriage (between a man and a woman) instead of letting the state’s decide the definition of marriage. The “usual tradition” is that Congress recognizes and accepts each state’s definition of marriage for purposes of applying federal law.

In this case, the aggrieved party was a resident of a state (New York) that allowed same sex marriage but the federal law, DOMA, trumped the state law and denied a married partner federal benefits available to heterosexual married couples from New York.

The Court said that “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so, it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” This is a clarification of law that legal scholars have been “eagerly” looking for, according to Lavelle. It is up to the states to decide the definition of marriage.

The Supreme Court also reiterated, according to Lavelle, that states have the exclusive rights to define marriage, but those laws and definitions must be in compliance with the constitution. The Court had visited this issue before when it found state laws banning marriage between people of different races to be unconstitutional. In short, states can define marriage but they must do so in a constitutional manner.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a key swing vote on the court, wrote the majority opinion of the Court which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia led the minority with an often sarcastic and caustic dissent –showing the Court’s deep divisions on this issue.

Lavelle is part of a long-line of Athens attorneys. Her father, William A. Lavelle, is a veteran Athens judge, lawyer and the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. She has two brothers, John and Frank who both practice law in Athens.