DOMA case and the Tenth Amendment

Jack Balkin has an interesting post on today’s two Defense of Marriage Act cases from the federal District of Massachusetts, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, and Massachusetts v. HHS. The latter case found DOMA unconstitutional, as applied to Massachusetts, because DOMA violates the Tenth Amendment by infringing the state’s traditional core sovereign power of defining lawful marriages. The most important parts of the Tenth Amendment analysis are at pages 28-36 of the opinion. Balkin is concerned because the Judge Tauro’s “Tenth Amendment arguments prove entirely too much. As much as liberals might applaud the result, they should be aware that the logic of his arguments, taken seriously, would undermine the constitutionality of wide swaths of federal regulatory programs and seriously constrict federal regulatory power.” In particular:

The modern state depends heavily on the federal government’s taxing and spending powers for many of the benefits that citizens hold dear, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the newly passed provisions of the Affordable Care Act. These programs have regulatory effects on state family policies just as much as DOMA does. If DOMA’s direct interference with state prerogatives is beyond federal power, then perhaps any or all of these programs are vulnerable– and unconstitutional– to the extent they interfere with state policies regarding family formation as well. Put differently, Judge Tauro has offered a road map to attack a wide range of federal welfare programs, including health care reform. No matter how much they might like the result in this particular case, this is not a road that liberals want to travel. 

Well, as my former boss, Colorado Attorney General Duane Woodard once put it, “There’s no liberal constitution or conservative constitution. It’s just the Constitution.” The Tenth Amendment is one of the roads that all conscientious American judges must travel, regardless of whether they personally like all of the places its leads. 

Balkin makes one error in his criticism of Judge Tauro’s Tenth Amendment analysis of congressional interference with traditional state government functions:

(In one of the wildest parts of the Massachusetts v. HHS opinion, Judge Tauro resurrects Chief Justice Rehnquist’s “traditional governmental functions” approach from National League of Cities v. Usery, which was specifically overturned in 1985 in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transportation Company on the grounds that it was completely unworkable. The existence of Supreme Court authority, however, does not stop Judge Tauro; he simply notes that some First Circuit precedents predating Garcia are still on the books, and who knows, maybe the Supreme Court will change its mind!)

 That’s not precisely accurate. Judge Tauro structured his opinion around the 1997 First Circuit case U.S. v. Bongiorno, which post-dates (not pre-dates) Garcia. According to Bongiorno:

a Tenth Amendment attack on a federal statute cannot succeed without three ingredients: (1) the statute must regulate the States as States, (2) it must concern attributes of state sovereignty, and (3) it must be of such a nature that compliance with it would impair a state’s ability to structure integral operations in areas of  traditional governmental functions.

The Bongiorno test comes directly from the 1981 Supreme Court case Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining & Reclam. Ass’n, which is still good law. Judge Tauro plausibly found that DOMA had each of the three Bongiorno ingredients. Balkin is right to point out that the new federal health control law could be found unconstitutional by any court which applies the Tenth Amendment as seriously as did Judge Tauro.

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