DOMA at the Supreme Court: Summary and Analysis of the Argument, Part 1












Professor Jackson struggled mightily, but that didn't stop the justices from criticizing the Executive Branch's moves in this case when questioning her and Sri Srinivasan, attorney for the Government.

Vicki_jacksonWe all knew that a similar case about Congress stepping in to defend a law that the executive branch did no, INS v. Chadha, was going to get a lot of play. In that case, there was standing. The law at issue in Chadha gave Congress the power to override an INS decision to deport someone. The administration at the time believed the law to be an unconstitutional violation of Executive powers and refused to defend the law. The Court said that Congress could step in because the power to override the INS was an explicit prerogative of Congress; Congress has standing to defend itself. But there are important differences between Chadha and the situation that brought House Republicans to DOMA's defense. First, Chadha involved both the House and the Senate stepping in, and, second, both had passed explicit resolutions authorizing their participation. Neither of those facts are present here: In Windsor, there was neither specific authorization nor were both houses involved. Plus, representing the House to defend DOMA is not part of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG)'s explicit rules.

But, several justices spent more time taking shots at the Administration's procedural moves — continuing to enforce a law, yet thinking it unconstitutional, and asking for the Supreme Court to decide the question — rather than asking nuanced questions about the law. The Chief Justice stated that the Administration lacked "courage" by punting the question to the Court. If you listen to the audio, you can hear the always-professional and cerebral Chief raise his voice in the manner used to respond to a disrespectful child. Even Professor Jackson, who argued that there is no jurisdiction in this case, pushed back against the Chief's implication.

Samuel-alitoJustice Alito, who, if these cases are any indication, does not like to play the devil's advocate, shot down Professor Jackson's suggestion that the Administration had no ability to appeal. It still owes Edie Windsor $350,000. Justice Kagan asked several questions on this point, as well. The Administration needs the Supreme Court to determine the status of DOMA.

Justice Sotomayor, though, got to the real problem with throwing this case out on standing: How is the next case going to be any different? If you don't let the federal government, who is the party on the hook for Ms. Windsor's (and everyone else's) federal tax bill, then there will never be standing to appeal a lower court's ruling declaring DOMA unconstitutional. And, that's exactly right. Given the unique procedural maneuvers in this case, you could never get an anti-DOMA ruling up to the Court; you'd have to wait for DOMA to be upheld, which is never going to happen.

In the end, Professor Jackson did her best in a tough environment, often prefacing her answers with "That's a difficult question…" or something of that sort. But, her fellow advocates faced intense questioning, as well.

SrinivasanSri Srinivasan spent almost his entire time swatting back criticisms from Justice Scalia and others about the Administration's unique procedure in this case. He kept returning to the argument that it doesn't matter if the House has standing because the Administration still had the power to appeal, as it was, and is, enforcing DOMA. The questioning here struck me as venting: the conservatives on the Court were a little peeved that the Administration decided not to defend DOMA, but since there is nothing illegal about that and nothing about the procedure it used that would deprive the Court of jurisdiction, the justices decided to show their disapproval with vociferous questioning. Don't let the "hot bench" Mr. Srinivasan faced persuade you that Windsor will be tossed on jurisdictional grounds.

When Paul Clement, the attorney for House Republicans, got up to talk standing, the questioning turned in earnest to the implications of Chadha. In Chadha, the key was that a specific power of Congress — overriding an INS deportation decision — was at stake, giving Congress standing. Here, Congress's only interest is the generalized interest in seeing laws it passes enforced. That's a powerful, important argument.

A_scaliaJustice Scalia returned again and again to the trope that "Congress passes the laws and the Executive enforces" them and that enacting laws would be meaningless if a president coulds simply say no to defending those laws. He (and the Chief Justice) also said that what the Administration did in this case was "unprecedented." Let's be clear: not defending a law is not unprecedented; defending it, then switching sides, winning, then asking the Court to give a decision anyway, is indeed unprecedented. But, the mere fact that it's unprecedented is not the point. We have to ask if this process, however unprecedented it might be, still deprives the Court of jurisdiction to hear the case. Scalia missed that, intentionally or unintentionally; several other justices realized this.

Toward the end of the procedural section of today's argument, Justice Alito asked about the fact that the House is trying to defend DOMA without the Senate. This puts together the whole package of questions we expected would be asked, with the justices pestering all sides. 

If we can take anything away from the standing line of questions is that it stands in sharp contrast to the jurisdiction line of questions in the Obamacare case. If you recall, there was a question as to whether the Court could even hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act because nothing had happened yet to spark a case. The Court's questioning in that case showed that nearly all of the justices were skeptical of a no-jurisdiction argument. Here, we see some skepticism, but most of it was simply critical of the Administration's behavior, not showing clear doubts about the Court's ability to hear the case. I caution making too much of the hot bench, though. In the health care case, jurisdiction was a slam dunk; here, it's just a closer call.



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. You can follow him on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.


  1. Carl says

    Hi Ari, I enjoy reading your articles. I don’t know if you will see this, but if you do, would you answer a question that has been bothering me? In both yesterday’s and today’s hearings it has been brought up that SCOTUS is questioning whether or not they should even be hearing/deciding on these cases. They seem to act a bit peeved that these cases have been brought before them. Aren’t they the ones who decide which cases they will hear? Haven’t they already answered that question in the affirmative since they are, in fact, hearing the cases? Thank you, Carl.

  2. bandanajack says

    good question carl…

    if i use a fair amount of imagination, and just the sliver of a possibility that the justices, at core, are interested in the advancement of justice, i can envisage the possibility of a sweeping win, with as many as 3 opinions being written. this is not unheard of, and there is enough in the federalism/states rights argument in there to give scalia a place to perch ruling against DOMA, which he knows to be unconstitutional on its face, without acknowledging the civil/gay rights aspects of the case. a ruling like that would go a long way in restoring faith in SCOTUS, after a few real stinkers of rulings.

  3. Buster says

    Carl – I know you asked this of Ari – but the answer to your question is that:

    (1) you are right, for 99% of their cases, the S. Ct. decides whether or not to take them (technically to “grant a writ of certiorari” which is an order to the lower court to certify the record in the case and send it on up to the S. Ct.). Their rule is that 4 of the 9 justices must vote to issue cert. for this to happen.

    (2) However, the S. Ct. can decide, AFTER hearing a case, that, for one reason or another, they should not have taken it up for hearing. They will then issue an unsigned court order dismissing the case “as improvidently granted.”

    (3) Reasons for such a dismissal may include: (a) that, as presented by the parties the case did not really present the constitutional issue in the way the court had expected,(b) or didn’t present a true federal issue that the court can decide or (c) because the court determines that there isn’t really a case or controversy between the parties (a la the standing issue in yesterday’s Prop 8. case.)

    Obviously such dismissals can be a disappointment to the litigants who went through the whole briefing and argument schedule only to get dismissed. But sometimes, to at least the side that prevailed at the court below, they are a happy result.

    Hope this helps.

  4. Matt N says

    Thanks for the detailed commentary. One question: You mentioned that “Justice Alito showed deep skepticism about how DOMA could ever be related to encouraging heterosexuals to get married.”

    My scan of Alito’s comments in the transcript didn’t seem to unearth this. Could you point at the comment that gave you that impression (possible I missed it).

  5. says

    @carl: thank you for your question. i see that another member of our community has answered your question. @buster, thank you. your insights are correct. i would add only that in addition to tossing a case as improvidently granted, sometimes SCOTUS will toss for lack of standing and issue an opinion to clarify standing rules. that is, issue a substantive opinion clarifying standing/jurisdiction.

  6. RWG says

    “But, several justices spent more time taking shots at the Administration’s procedural moves — continuing to enforce a law, yet thinking it unconstitutional, and asking for the Supreme Court to decide the question — rather than asking nuanced questions about the law. The Chief Justice stated that the Administration lacked “courage” by punting the question to the Court.”

    I find this line of attack against the Obama administration to be extremely disingenuous. If the administration had declined to enforce the law, impeachment proceedings would have been introduced in the House of Representatives, and the entire GOP establishment would have called for Mr. Obama’s head.

  7. Query says

    Thanks for these articles. Very helpful.

    When you write, “…then there will never be standing to appeal a lower court’s ruling declaring DOMA unconstitutional. And, that’s exactly right. Given the unique procedural maneuvers in this case, you could never get an anti-DOMA ruling up to the Court; you’d have to wait for DOMA to be upheld, which is never going to happen.”, don’t you mean ‘wait for DOMA to be overturned’ rather than ‘upheld’? Or ‘overturned or upheld’?

  8. mary meszaros says

    Why is marriage being discussed at all? It’s already been Decided by the only one whose opinion counts God He is the only truth the only one who cared enough about us to write a book of love with guidelines for every aspect of our lives and He doesn’t care if He’s popular with society or not My suggestion read His book fom cover to cover start doing what’s best for the spiritual well being oof our nation take some strong moral stands

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