Second Circuit Holds DOMA Unconstitutional, Supreme Court Up Next: An Analysis


WindsorA relatively conservative three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided today that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriages for the purposes of federal law as only those between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. It also took the groundbreaking step of declaring that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation warrants heightened scrutiny, not rational basis review, which is likely to force the Supreme Court to mediate the resulting circuit split on the appropriate level of scrutiny. Windsor v. United States follows on the heels of a similar First Circuit decision (Massachusetts, where the court used "rational basis plus") and precedes one from the Ninth Circuit (Golinski, where the district court called for heightened scrutiny, but rejected DOMA using both levels of scrutiny) and, ultimately, the Supreme Court.

The case of Edie Windsor brought a personal face to the odious discrimination wrought by DOMA. When her wife, Thea Spyer, passed away, the widowed Edie was forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal taxes that any surviving spouse of an opposite-sex marriage would not have had to pay. With the help of the ACLU, lawyers at Paul Weiss, and the Obama Administration, Ms. Windsor challenged DOMA as a violation of the right to equal protection of the laws. Today, the Second Circuit agreed.

The stage is now set for the Supreme Court to say DOMA is unconstitutional alongside a clear statement of the appropriate level of scrutiny for antigay discrimination. Expect the grant of certiorari within a few months.

AFTER THE JUMP, I take you through a quick summary and analysis of today's decision in Windsor.

There are three substantive take home lessons from the Second Circuit's decision:

1. That Baker v. Nelson is irrelevant.

2. That antigay discrimination merits heightened scrutiny.

3. That DOMA fails to meet heightened scrutiny and is, therefore, unconstitutional.

Let's take each point in turn.

Baker v. Nelson is irrelevant and, in any event, outdated.

Baker v. Nelson was a summary dismissal of an appeal from a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that said that Minnesota law did not allow gay couples to marry and that such a law did not violate the Federal Constitution. When the Supreme Court shoots down a "summary dismissal," it is almost like ignoring it, or saying that the case does not raise any issue for a federal court to address. In doing so, the Court restricts using that case as precedent to the very specific set of facts in that particular case. And that is why Baker is irrelevant to DOMA. Windsor asked the question of whether the federal government can define marriages as opposite sex marriages for the purposes of federal benefits while Baker asked whether a state can restrict marriages to opposite sex couples in the first place. 

Perhaps more importantly, the Court said that even if it is wrong about that (it is not), Baker is no longer good law. Significant doctrinal developments since Baker, which was decided in 1971, have changed the landscape of minority and gay rights, in general, and marriage rights, in particular. There was no such thing as intermediate scrutiny in 1971. Antigay discrimination did not even need a rational basis until 1996 (Romer v. Evans). And, until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, gays were still presumptive criminals.

What's more, the court said, Baker does not foreclose us from using heightened scrutiny on antigay discrimination. Here, the Second Circuit departs from the First Circuit's decision in Massachusetts, which refused to use heightened scrutiny because Baker appeared to stand in the way and enshrined discrimination into federal law. First, the level of scrutiny for federal marriage discrimination could be different than the level of scrutiny for a state's marriage discrimination law, only the latter of which could even implicate Baker (though the Court does not say Baker would be a barrier to heightened scrutiny in that case, either). Second, the Supreme Court's refusal to use heightened scrutiny in Romer is not dispositive on anyone; the petitioners in that case gave up their call for heightened scrutiny at the trial level, so the issue was never properly before the Court.

Analysis: Almost every federal court decision on DOMA has pushed Baker v. Nelson aside and yet the Congressional Republicans defending DOMA now keep coming back with it. It is a losing argument and the Second Circuit offered us the best explanation to date: Baker refers to state law, the legalization of marriages in the first place, not the federal laws that are triggered when a valid marriage happens at the state level. Plus, Baker is outdated: it was from a time long before gay Americans were liberated from the status of enemies of the law.

Heightened Scrutiny for Antigay Discrimination

The court then recognized that the law of scrutiny in this area is in a state of flux or uncertainty. Congressional Republicans want the barest and lowest form of rational basis review. The First Circuit used a "rational basis plus" level of scrutiny that has been used for discriminatory social legislation. The district court below claimed to use simple rational basis. The Second Circuit had no dog in this fight, however; heightened scrutiny was appropriate here.

The four factors for determining use of heightened scrutiny — history of discrimination, a defining characteristic that is relevant to the classified group's ability to contribute to society, obvious distinguishing characteristics, and minority status or political powerlessness — are all present. And, although "immutability" and "powerlessness" are not determinative, all factors counsel in favor of heightened scrutiny. 

For the next several pages, the court reasons through each factor, slapping down Congressional Republicans' sometimes hateful arguments. They tried to argue that because gays were never disenfranchised, gays have no history of discrimination. The court laughed this off, noting that the Republicans' attorney, Paul Clement, conceded that gays have been discriminated against "at least since 1920." They then tried to argue that while the status of being gay does not limit one's ability to contribute to society, the status of being a same-sex couple diminishes that couple's ability to procreate and raise children. This is Congressional Republicans at their homophobic best, and the Court not only rips them for failing to cite any authority for that falsehood but for positing an irrelevant fact for determining scrutiny levels. They tried to argue that sexuality changes over time, so gays, as a sexual identity, are not immutable. Even if that were true, the court said, it's irrelevant. The test requires an obvious distinguishing characteristic that sets apart the victimized group from the rest of the population. The fact that a law exists discriminating against them for their same-sex attraction is proof enough of the defining trait. And, they tried to argue that improvements in the political environment for gays has made gays powerful. The court again laughed this off, noting that Congressional Republicans were missing the point: the issue is not the fact of some power or improvement in political power, but rather the groups ability to protect themselves from discrimination in the political sphere. Gay American cannot do that, as evidenced by the slew of antigay laws passed against us.

Analysis: Affirming the use of heightened scrutiny for antigay discrimination is an unprecedented victory for the gay rights movement. We have been calling for this substantive change in the law for years and our efforts were exponentially aided by President Obama deciding to stop defending DOMA and declaring his Administration's position in favor of heightened scrutiny. But today's decision is not only an affirmation of what we all know to be true. It also places the Supreme Court in a unique position. Windsor disagreed with Massachusetts on the level of scrutiny, so there is now a clear circuit split on the matter and one that can only be resolved by the Supreme Court. 

Although I have argued that the DOMA cases offer the Supreme Court a chance at conservative and liberal agreement, it is not clear how they will come out on the appropriate level of scrutiny. DOMA has the chance to be struck down with six votes (the four moderate-liberal justices, including Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, alongside the author of Lawrence and Romer, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Chief Justice John Roberts, who may hate DOMA's federal encroachment and may not want to be on the wrong side of history on this case), but the scrutiny level will be up to Justice Kennedy. He purposely left the scrutiny level obscure in Lawrence and never had the option to consider it in Romer, so he may be disinclined to clarify it any more. However, he cannot deny the uncertainty he has created — countless lawyers, courts, and academics have argued as much — so he may be interested in clarification.

DumpdomaDOMA is Unconstitutional

Heightened scrutiny requires that the proponents of a discriminatory law prove that the law is "substantially related to an important government interest." That unhelpful phrase means that the justification must be really important and the stated interests must be real, not ad hoc or derived ex post. At oral argument, Mr. Clement basically conceded that none of his profferred interests — maintaining a consistent definition of marriage, securing the fiscal state of the federal government, and, oddly, "avoiding the unknown consequences of a novel redefinition of a foundational social institution," and encouraging "responsible procreation" — could withstand heightened scrutiny. The Second Circuit agreed.

To the extent that there ever was a uniform definition of marriage, it was whatever the state's wanted. And, if anything, DOMA created more complexity by leaving all the other differences in the various state marriage laws in place and adding a new, novel criterion it never had asked for before.

Nor can DOMA be justified because Congress hoped to save money. That government interest, though important, is not sufficient to justify discrimination alone. Here, the Second Circuit adds two points not well developed in other decisions striking down DOMA: First, the law actually effectuated a benefit withdrawal from married couples in that, previously, any married couple would get the same benefits and, with DOMA, only the opposite-sex ones could. Second, DOMA's breadth, touching on so many areas of federal law that have nothing to do with money, belies any suggestion that it has anything to do with conserving fiscal resources.

DOMA could not be justified as a means of preserving the traditional definition of marriage, an interest the court found dubious in the first place, but practically impossible to achieve via DOMA. After all, the law leaves in place marriage law in the various states, where several (and soon, hopefully 3 more) allow same-sex couples to marry.

And, DOMA could not in any way encourage responsible procreation, an admittedly important government interest, because DOMA provides no incentives for opposite sex couples to enter a marriage and then have children. Instead, the law is a sword that keeps people out of wedlock and there is no evidence to suggest that opposite sex couples will marry only if gays are kept away from it.

Analysis: In holding DOMA unconstitutional under heightened scrutiny, the Second Circuit followed its sister and lower courts by showing how unrelated DOMA is to anything other than bare discrimination against gays. It also went further. It emphasized the great reach of the law and took a logical approach to finding a connection between a law and supposed interests that make no sense. The court also put its ruling in context, noting that gay marriage used to be an unknown in marriage law. But, the law is not concerned "with holy matrimony," but with "civil marriage." It showed that its home jurisdiction, New York State, has opened the doors of marriage to gay New Yorkers, but in so doing, did not touch a church's right to and role in blessing that union in the eyes of a given conception of god. The implication is that any law concerned with such divine matters of morality has no place in American life.


The Second Circuit's decision in Windsor is a great victory for the gay community in several ways. In the most practical sense, it declared DOMA unconstitutional and puts Ms. Windsor one step closer to the money she was forced to pay simply because she is gay. As a substantive matter, Windsor puts us all closer to DOMA review at the Supreme Court because it is a case that raised similar issues to Massachusetts, but had unique elements. Now that the case has arrived at the Court's door in the normal course, we can expect the Supreme Court to grant certiorari within a few months.

More broadly, the decision reflects the progress of gay rights in the courts. I have spoken at length at how one decision moves other decisions, which build on other decisions, and make the next decision easier. That is why Lawrence, which was about anti-sodomy laws, Perry, which is about gay marriage in California, and Windsor, which is about federal benefits, are all related. The Second Circuit cited Supreme Court, appellate court, and district court decisions on gay rights, minorities, federal benefits, and a host of other areas to show that DOMA's discrimination is unconstitutional. And, while making obvious distinctions between DOMA and, say, state bans on the freedom to marry, progress on DOMA brings us many steps closer to overturning all state and federal laws that brand us as second-class citizens.


Ari Ezra Waldman teaches at Brooklyn Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. His research focuses on technology, privacy, speech, and gay rights. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues. 

Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.