As you no doubt know, this past week two major gay rights cases were argued before the United States Supreme Court. The first of these cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry, is the case that challenged Prop 8, California’s 2008 marriage equality ban. While there is much to say about Perry, I will save my thoughts until that case is finally decided one way or another. Instead I would prefer to talk about United States v. Windsor, the second case that was argued, and in many ways the more important of the two. Windsor challenges Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the part that limits federal recognition of state marriages to heterosexual couples. Windsor is the less grand of the two cases and far less modest in terms of scope, but it a step in a well-developed legal strategy and a more likely winner.
Edie Windsor, now an octogenarian, married her long-time partner Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007 after being together for over forty years. Because they lived in New York, their marriage was fully recognized by the state government and treated as equal. Thea suffered from multiple sclerosis, and Edie was her caretaker. When Thea died, Edie was assessed over $360,000 in taxes on Thea’s estate by the federal government–taxes that would not have been assessed had Thea been Theodore. Edie Windsor won her case at trial and again on appeal. Both lower courts declared that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional.
This case (and several like it that are currently before federal courts) has an interesting twist to it. Whenever a federal law is challenged in court, the Executive Branch (usually through the Justice Department) defends it. This time however, the President himself declared DOMA unconstitutional and refused to defend it. In fact, the Justice Department went so far as to argue on behalf of Edie Windsor at the Supreme Court.
While it is exceedingly rare for the President not to defend a federal law, it is also not unheard of (contrary to the impotent fit that the Court’s conservative Justices threw at oral argument). However, if DOJ refused to defend DOMA then that put the case in an odd position. Having won at trial, Edie Windsor could not appeal. Which meant that someone had to appeal in order to bring the case to the Supreme Court. This is where Congress came. Because the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans, the House, through its falsely named and unfortunately acronymed Bipartisan Legal Advisory Committee (BLAG), hired a high-powered, high-profile attorney named Paul Clement and paid him big money to defend DOMA. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, did not join the challenge.
Whether BLAG is allowed to defend the case is an open question, and there is a question about whether the Justices may dismiss Windsor on standing. Standing is legalese term for the right to be a part of a case. Unless you are a legal nerd, this is all very dry and boring, so I won’t waste your time with it other than to say that the issue is whether BLAG is an appropriate party to represent the government on appeal. BLAG says yes, Edie Windsor’s attorneys says yes, DOJ says yes, but the Supreme Court wasn’t sure. They asked a Harvard law professor to argue against standing, and then tore her arguments to shreds.
For the purposes of this post, my focus is less about how Windsor will turn out, but rather the man who argued against it, Paul Clement. Clement, a man whom I have written about before, is probably the most famous Supreme Court advocate working today (this is a big deal in legal circles). He has argued over 50 cases before the Court and is a dynamic presence at the lectern. He is smart, quick on his feet, and clearly respected by the Justices. In the George W. Bush administration, Clement was initially the Principal Deputy Solicitor General and then in 2004 was named Solicitor General.† (Ironically the man he succeeded, Ted Olson, was arguing on behalf the gay couples in the Prop 8 case.) I also suspect however, that Clement is a partisan hack who lacks scruples.
Clement is not only steeped in the traditions and quirks of practicing before the Supreme Court, he has the an enviable conservative pedigree. He graduated from Harvard Law School and was an editor of the Harvard Law Review (I believe the year that now-President Obama was in charge). After law school, he clerked for Laurence Silberman at the DC Circuit and then Antonin Scalia at the Supreme Court–two of the most famous conservatives jurists in the country. He was an associate at Kirkland & Ellis, then chief counsel for a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and then became a partner at King & Spaulding. This was before he left to go to the SG’s office where he famously argued major terrorism cases. After returning to private practice he was the natural choice as counsel for the opponents of Obamacare. No doubt his Federalist Society dues are paid through 2025.
Yet for someone as accomplished and respected as Clement is, he has also lost a lot of very high-profile cases–the terrorism cases and Obamacare being the most high-profile. Infamously, while at the SG’s office, Clement told the Justices that the United States does not torture, and within a week, the Abu Ghraib pictures were released. (It is a wonder he was allowed back in the building.) Clement’s win-loss record though is not a knock against him; conversely, that he has appeared so many times is a sign of his talents. What people, especially–but not exclusively–non-lawyers, tend not to understand is that the Supreme Court is a lawmaking body, same as Congress. The Justices themselves obfuscate their role by saying stupid things like “the job of a judge is to be like an umpire and call balls and strikes.” Or they hide their role through judicial philosophies like Originalism, the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted as the Framers would have done in 1789. No, the Supreme Court makes law. When it comes to Constitutional Law, they ostensibly do as little as possible out of a false humility–an unelected body that never faces the will of the populace should not make sweeping judgments (until a majority wants to make sweeping judgments). The point is that while it is supposed to be Clement’s job to persuade a majority of the Justices to his side, the truth is that the Justices make their own decisions based on policy and politics as much as law.
When Clement was hired by BLAG, he was a partner at King & Spaulding, Atlanta’s major law firm. The hue and cry that rose up against King & Spaulding for taking the case however, was nothing that the firm had prepared for. Corporate America, which surprisingly has been at the vanguard of gay rights, was quite vocal. The rumors (denied by all but probably true) were that Coca-Cola threatened to withdraw as a client of King & Spaulding if the firm continued defending DOMA. No matter how big King & Spaulding is; an Atlanta firm that loses Coca-Cola may as well sign its own death warrant. As a result, Clement left the firm for Bancroft, a litigation boutique with a strong conservative presence. For his decision to leave his law firm to continue defending his client, Clement was lauded as a hero. That is one way to look at the story but I offer another.
Most likely, Edie Windsor will win her case, and Section 3 of DOMA will be struck down, probably 5-4. There are no guarantees that the Justices’ opinion will do much to help the LGBT rights movement in the next case, but all signs point to Section 3 being dead (yes, the common wisdom is that one can never tell from oral argument, but Obamacare aside, that is not actually true). This has been the writing on the wall for some time. The federal courts that have heard Section 3 cases have been near unanimous in finding for gay plaintiffs. The House Republicans may want to defend DOMA, but that does not make it a winner. Everyone deserves representation, but that representation does not mean a day in court–it means that the lawyer has to give his client the best advice possible. There are several issues with Windsor that make BLAG’s side the loser: (1) standing; (2) constitutionality; and (3) defensibility.
I mentioned the standing issue above. As for constitutionality, Section 3 is flat-out unconstitutional whether it be on Equal Protection grounds or federalism grounds.* Finally there is the lack of defensibility. Clement abandoned the usual defense, the infamous “parade of horribles” which compares gay relationships to pedophilia, polygamy, and perversions. This was not done out of the kindness of his heart; the Supreme Court has made it clear that this argument will not win the day. Without it however, Clement lacked the most potent weapon in his arsenal. As a response, he came up with two new arguments: (1) Congressional intent in creating DOMA was not discrimination, it was for uniformity; and (2) gay couples don’t need marriage because they cannot accidentally get pregnant. In other words, in this latter argument, gay people are too responsible, whereas those irresponsible heterosexuals need added protections (taxes, Social Security, etc.) because otherwise they will not protect the many accidental babies they irresponsibly produce. This latter argument is so ridiculous that I cannot even remember if it was brought up in Court. The former argument is an outright lie. Congress was not only open about its discriminatory intent in creating DOMA, Congress was proud of it. I have never heard Paul Clement reduced to such babbling as when Justice Kagan ambushed him with the actual Congressional Record that stated that in creating DOMA, “Congress decided to reflect and honor collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.” How he was unprepared for that attack is beyond me; even a bad or inexperienced lawyer would have been aware of it.
Clement’s performance at oral argument betrayed his dishonesty and that of his side. Sticking to the idea that DOMA was purely a marriage uniformity act, Clement argued, “We don’t want somebody, if they are going to be transferred in the military from West Point to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, to resist the transfer because they are going to lose some benefits.” The gall of this argument is infuriating. First of all, there is the obvious question: why shouldn’t someone resist a transfer to a place that treats his or her marriage as invalid? Besides which, these are not merely “some benefits” that a gay couple will lose, but in fact quite substantial ones. Moreover, his argument is entirely disingenuous. In 1996 when DOMA was passed, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was still effect–meaning that if a gay or lesbian person in the military asked for federal marriage benefits, he or she risked certain discharge. In 1996 this would be especially risky–the first civil unions were not enacted until 2000 and the first same-sex marriages did not begin until 2004, and all previous attempts to attain legally recognized same-sex unions failed spectacularly. (Furthermore, DOMA has no sunset provisions; Congress never expected it to end and had to plans to reevaluate it.) Finally there is the converse uniformity question: if Congress was so concerned about uniformity why not declare that a legally recognized same-sex union must be recognized by every state (the complete opposite of DOMA)? The answer is that uniformity was clearly not the motivating factor, animus was. And animus as a motivating factor does not pass even the Supreme Court’s most lax standard of review.
So given that there is a standing issue, two issues of constitutionality, and no legitimate defense, why would Clement take the case to court rather than counseling BLAG to drop it? Well, there are two answers. The first is that I do not believe there is a conservative, reactionary cause that Clement will not gleefully defend. For all his acumen, he is at heart as much a hack as any politician. The second, and probably more important reason is that Congress has spent millions on this case. Clement’s hourly rate is not cheap, and any case that goes to the Supreme Court will have a very large legal bill–which is why the Supreme Court takes on a very large number of cases involving multinational corporations. Unlike corporate cases though, the DOMA defense is footed by the taxpayer. While the millions Clement’s firm is currently earning is a mere drop in the fiscal bucket, to spend so much on an unwinnable battle comes across as rank hypocrisy from the party that fashions itself as the one of fiscal responsibility.
Having torn apart Clement for a lack of scruples, I again acknowledge that the Supreme Court is a lawmaking body not truly bound by anything (or as I heard one respected lawyer say, “The law is all crap.”) Ergo, even though the law seemingly demands that the Court overturn Section 3, that is no guarantee. But even with the most conservative-leaning Court since the early New Deal days, it is still hard to imagine that Section 3 will survive. If for no other reason, very few Justices want to go down as the next Roger Taney or James McReynolds, Justices remembered (if at all) for being on the wrong side of history.
Then there is Antonin Scalia. In the stately, staid world of the Supreme Court, Scalia has been throughout his term the spark plug. He is vocal, acerbic, witty, and he takes his one-man show outside of the Court’s marble temple (i.e. speaking engagements). His written opinions are equally acidic and are written to play to the gallery. Scalia is smart, and he wants people to know it. In the past few years however, his act has become embarrassing–he publicly called out the Obama Administration for its role in the political realm, which is practically unheard of. He called the Voting Rights Act “a racial entitlement“–as though the right to vote was not the fundamental guarantee of a democratic country. And we must not forget the ridiculous “Broccoli Horrible.” But aside from perhaps abortion, the cases that seem to make Scalia the angriest have been gay rights cases. Quite frankly, Scalia is homophobic and exhibits it with every comment he makes. (Rachel Maddow’s comparison of him to an Internet troll is mean but quite correct.)
Windsor presents an added irritant to Scalia; it lays bare that his judicial philosophy of Originalism is merely a personal opinion with delusions of historicity.** (This critique also applies to Clarence Thomas’s similar but more extreme original intent philosophy.) Even if one accepted Originalism, the Framers of the Constitution (putting aside the revulsion they would feel about homosexuality) would perceive DOMA as blatantly unconstitutional. In the Framers’ days, there was a limit to the federal government’s power, the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states, and the Commerce Clause was really about commerce. DOMA would have been (and still is) an unjustifiable incursion onto the authority of the states.*** I have no difficulty however, believing that Scalia and Thomas will both abandon their slavish devotion to original intent, and instead vote to uphold arguably the most blatant Congressional overreach of my lifetime.
That Supreme Court is a political body, and I suppose no one should be surprised that the Justices and the advocates who come before them are political creatures.
† The Solicitor General (SG) is the lawyer who represents the United States before the Supreme Court. The office of the SG is full of brilliant, talented, and ambitious attorneys who come from and are practically guaranteed to return to high paying jobs at enormous law firms. Like Supreme Court clerks–which many of these attorneys once were–lawyers in the SG’s office are the cream of the cream of the crop and are highly prized commodities. They are also ridiculously ritualized, something the Supreme Court Justices play into, not least by calling the SG “General” at oral argument (it’s a weird quirk, given that the “General” in Solicitor General is an adjective so the appropriate title should be Mr./Madam Solicitor General). The most ridiculous of these rituals is the morning coat, which the SG traditionally wears when arguing before the Court. (Former SG and current Associate Justice Elena Kagan opted against wearing it.)
* The federalism issue is that marriage has historically been defined by states and the federal government has historically honored that. DOMA forbids federal recognition which means the state’s ability to define marriage is infringed upon.
** While Scalia pretends to care deeply about the original intent of the (deeply divided) Framers of the Constitution, he gives little heed to the (near unanimous agreement of the) Framers of the Civil War Amendments, which remade both document and country. Nor does he care at all about the intent of modern legislators and legislative history when deciding about how to interpret of the constitutionality of modern legislation. Perhaps it is because the Congressional Record is a very thorough legislative report whereas the information we have today about the Constitutional Convention is sparse and generally one-sided.
*** For my own part, I do not buy into a federalism argument. To me this is about Equal Protection.