Archive | Beyond DOMA

Duquesne Federalist Society

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing the Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor with Professor Lynn Wardle of BYU Law School.   We’ll be there at the invitation of the Duquesne University Law School student chapter of the Federalist Society.  The event begins at Noon. [...]

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State Denies In-State Tuition to Same-Sex Spouse of a Servicemember

The effects of federal recognition of same-sex marriages across the full spectrum of federal benefits, including for those domiciled in states that ban the recognition of their marriages for state purposes, are bubbling up on an almost daily basis.  According to the Dallas Voice, the University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA) has denied an in-state tuition rate to the same-sex spouse of an active duty servicemember who is stationed in Texas, which bans same-sex marriages in its state constitution.  The military recognizes the marriages of servicemembers to same-sex spouses for all purposes and wherever the servicemember is stationed.  Texas doesn’t have to recognize same-sex marriages for state purposes, so ordinarily its public universities would not have to provide any benefits based on such marriages.  But in this case, federal law provides that federal aid is available to schools only if they grant spouses of military members the favorable rates.  The Higher Education Opportunity Act, 20 U.S.C. 1015d, provides:

In the case of a member of the armed forces who is on active duty for a period of more than 30 days and whose domicile or permanent duty station is in a State that receives assistance under this chapter, such State shall not charge such member (or the spouse or dependent child of such member) tuition for attendance at a public institution of higher education in the State at a rate that is greater than the rate charged for residents of the State.

The president of the American Military Partners Association says that UTSA better get with the program or risk losing federal funds.  “Federal law specifically requires that universities grant in-state tuition rates to the spouses of active duty service members,” he told the Voice. “We urge the federal government to immediately withhold any federal funds that UTSA is [...]

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DOMA and Dignity

Why is the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional?  Here are two propositions that United States v. Windsor might be thought to stand for:

(1) The federal government’s decision not to recognize state-sanctioned marriages of same-sex couples was an unconstitutional intrusion on federalism (a structural claim); or

(2) The federal government’s decision not to recognize state-sanctioned marriages of same-sex couples was an unconstitutional infringement on a substantive right, e.g., the right to marry (a liberty claim).

These are among the many plausible interpretations of Windsor, but some explanations are more plausible than others.  After consuming several pages discussing the interests of the states in controlling family law, Justice Kennedy expressly states that the Court is not relying strictly on federalism.  Surely a statement in a decision suggesting what it means should have some bearing on what it means.  The Chief Justice, in dissent, thinks federalism is nevertheless critical to the result and would help to distinguish the case from one that involved a claimed constitutional right to state recognition of same-sex marriages.  He might be right about that.  But the Chief Justice’s explanation may also be more a hope about the limited consequences of an alternative Windsor than a reading of the actual Windsor (see Justice Scalia’s dissent).

As for the second proposition, the Court certainly mentions liberty several times.  And the context is one in which the plaintiffs claim that “liberty” protects a right to have their marriages fully recognized by government.  The Court sets for itself the task of deciding “whether the resulting injury and indignity is a deprivation of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment.”  Slip op. at 19.  It concludes that Congress “cannot deny the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.”  Op. at 25.  But my sense is that reliance on [...]

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Labor Department Extends ERISA Protections to Same-Sex Spouses

The effect of United States v. Windsor continues to ripple through federal law, expanding by leaps and bounds the rights and protections afforded to same-sex spouses.  The effect has been magnified by a friendly federal bureaucracy under the Obama administration, which is widely adopting a place-of-celebration rule for recognizing same-sex marriages under federal laws using words like “spouse” and “marriage,”  thus extending federal recognition to same-sex spouses even if they live in states that don’t themselves recognize their marriages. 

The latest installment in this story is the announcement today by the Labor Department that henceforth it will interpret the Employee Retirment and Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which governs most private pension and health plans, to include same-sex as well as opposite-sex spouses.

[T]he term “spouse” will be read to refer to any individuals who are lawfully married under any state law, including individuals married to a person of the same sex who were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, but who are domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriages. Similarly, the term “marriage” will be read to include a same-sex marriage that is legally recognized as a marriage under any state law.

The Department defended its decision to adopt a place-of-celebration rule rather than a place-of-domicile rule based on its reading of Windsor and policy considerations, like a need for uniformity and certainty in coverage of employees who move from one state to another.

This is the most natural reading of those terms; it is consistent with Windsor, in which the plaintiff was seeking tax benefits under a statute that used the term “spouse”; and a narrower interpretation would not further the purposes of the relevant statutes and regulations. . . .  

A rule that recognizes marriages that are valid in

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VA Must Extend Benefits to Married Same-Sex Couples, District Court Says

In the aftermath of United States v. Windsor, the Obama administration is adopting a generous position on the availability of federal benefits to married same-sex couples, as co-blogger Will Baude pointed out yesterday in a post on the IRS ruling regarding their federal tax status.  So far, in contrast to their almost open resistance to Lawrence v. Texas, lower federal courts are also reading the decision expansively.  Today, a district court in California granted summary judgment to a married lesbian veteran who was denied added disability benefits that would have been available if she had been married to a man, even though the denial did not rest on DOMA.  The brief opinion is here

The Department of Veterans Affairs had taken the position that Windsor struck down only DOMA, not the specific provision of federal law under which veterans’ benefits are determined and that independently defined a “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex.”  38 U.S.C. Section 101 (c) .  The law stood, said the VA, until Congress changed it or a court struck it down as unconstitutional.  (The Bi-Partisan Legal Advisory Group withdrew its defense of litigation like this after Windsor.)

The district judge determined that, in light of Windsor, Title 38’s limitation of benefits to opposite-sex spouses was not rationally related to the federal government’s interests in promoting gender equality, expanding veterans’ benefits, ensuring that servicemembers reach their maximum potential, promoting unit readiness and cohesion, or enhancing recruiting and retention. 

Quite aside from its significance on the issue of same-sex marriage, one consequence of Windsor could be that federal courts are gradually accepting heightened scrutiny when it comes to discrimination against homosexuals.  A second possibility is that, apart from increased skepticism of anti-gay discrimination, Windsor will lead to a further erosion [...]

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Interstitial Law

Before I go, I wanted to leave you with a few thoughts about these legal issues that go beyond the issue of DOMA and same-sex marriage.

As you may have gleaned, it turns out that marriage isn’t the only area where federal law draws upon or relies upon a pre-existing concept under state law. As has been mentioned in passing in my posts and in the comments, bankruptcy and tax law frequently draw upon state property law. (Before you tax and bankruptcy experts complain, yes, I know that federal law doesn’t always follow exactly what the state does, but in many cases the variations in state law are incorporated.) That’s also true in criminal law (where prior state convictions trigger increased punishments for later federal crimes), in federal enclaves (where the Assimilative Crimes Act incorporates the criminal law of the surrounding state), and much more. Henry Hart called this kind of federal law “interstitial.”

In some of areas of “interstitial” law, the choice of law problems are pretty well worked out. It’s pretty obvious to everybody that your prior state convictions are determined by the state where you were convicted, and so on. But in others, the choice-of-law problem is subject to the same kinds of ambiguities as marital law is, so my article provides some insight for resolving those areas too. (For example, my article shows why the Klaxon rule, which some courts have used, shouldn’t be extended to those areas.)

I think I have another normative point, too. Sometimes when interstitial law is invoked in a particular context, it strikes people as weird or counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t the scope of a federal right or the meaning of a federal law be uniform? I hope that our exploration of interstitial law convinces you that the answer is “not necessarily.” In [...]

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Amidst all of my many posts about what federal courts should do if DOMA is struck down, I thought I should say a little bit about Congress.

First — and this may be obvious to some readers but perhaps not to all — Congress could of course fix the choice of law problem by providing a statutory rule. Indeed, one of the few virtues of DOMA is that it is just such a rule. And in one of the most recent proposed bills that would repeal DOMA, Congress has also proposed replacing it with a choice of law rule.

I think this is a great idea. If DOMA goes away, Congress should exercise its power to replace it with some legitimate choice of law rule (obviously, if DOMA is unconstitutional, the replacement rule couldn’t be identical to DOMA, but there are a lot of other possibilities).

A congressional choice of law solution would have more legitimacy than a common-law solution, and could be more far-reaching, considering a broader range of policy considerations. (It could even extend federal marital benefits to civil unions, as discussed in my exchange with JHW.) Indeed, the opportunity to provide a replacement rule is one reason that Congress ought to repeal DOMA rather than just waiting around for the courts to have their way with it.

As for what rule Congress should adopt, I think the rule proposed in S.598 is a pretty good one. That rule is:

For the purposes of any Federal law in which marital status is a factor, an individual shall be considered married if that individual’s marriage is valid in the State where the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside any State, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered

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A Common-Law Solution

So I’ve explained why I reject two of the three possible approaches that federal courts take to the marital choice of law problem. The one that’s left over is the so-called federal common law approach, where courts craft a common-law doctrine for deciding which state’s marriage law is relevant to a federal statute.

You might ask, wasn’t federal common law forbidden by the Court’s decision in Erie v. Tompkins? No, not really. Here is how the Court explained it just last term in AEP v. Connecticut:

“There is no federal general common law,” Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins famously recognized. In the wake of Erie, however, a keener understanding developed. See generally Friendly, In Praise of Erie — And of the New Federal Common Law, 39 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 383 (1964). Erie “le[ft] to the states what ought be left to them,” id., at 405, and thus required “federal courts [to] follow state decisions on matters of substantive law appropriately cognizable by the states,” id., at 422. Erie also sparked “the emergence of a federal decisional law in areas of national concern.” Id., at 405. The “new” federal common law addresses “subjects within national legislative power where Congress has so directed” or where the basic scheme of the Constitution so demands.

I elaborate on this more in the paper, but basically it should be pretty clear that this kind of choice-of-law rule — choosing the state law on which a federal statute has chosen to rely — is the kind of “area of national concern” where a federal common law rule is okay.

That leaves us with the question: well, what rule? It may be a little anticlimactic to say so, but I don’t actually think it is that important what the rule is. The important [...]

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What Happens to Straight People

Before I get to the last phase of my stint here, I thought it would be helpful for me to address one recurring theme in the comments. John D’s comment this morning is representative: “how are opposite-sex married couples treated in conflict-of-laws situations? We’ll take that, then.”

The important thing to recognize is that there is no established answer for how opposite-sex married couples are treated! All of these posts about different approaches aren’t hypothetical, they’re all real doctrines already applied to the conflicts problem outside of the same-sex context.

I think this is non-intuitive for many people — lawyers and non-lawyers — because they have a sense that legal uncertainty is pretty commonplace, and people usually manage to just muddle through. Even if doctrine is uncertain on the margins or theoretically incoherent, most of the time it just doesn’t matter much. But choice-of-law doctrine is unusually uncertain, and unusually incoherent, even compared to other legal doctrines!

Also, there are two practical reasons that these uncertainties haven’t made much of a difference, most of the time, to straight couples.

First, the uncertainties really bubble to the surface only when some states so strongly oppose a type of marriage that they exercise their traditional prerogative to refuse to recognize that marriage when it is consummated out of state. That hasn’t happened very often.

Second, the times when it has happened have simply not featured the same numbers as same-sex marriages do. In the last census, more than 130,000 same-sex couples described themselves as married! (Interracial marriage might have featured sizable numbers, I’m not sure, and if so, I’m not sure why the problem didn’t come up as much as you would expect in that context. I wonder if it had to do with the smaller size and scope of federal regulation.) [...]

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What’s Wrong with Klaxon

So earlier this morning (yesterday, Eastern Time, which apparently governs the Volokh Conspiracy), I explained why the federal government does indeed need to look in large part to state law when it tries to figure out whether a couple is married. In this post we’ll discuss another alternative solution with a goofy case name: Klaxon.”

To recap, Klaxon is a general rule for solving choice of law problems in federal court when there is no federal law involved. And the solution Klaxon provides depends on the physical location of the federal trial court where the litigation takes place. It says that the federal trial court should imagine itself as a state court in the same state, and then do whatever that state’s courts would do.

Commenter “JHW” asked, in the previous post mentioning Klaxon:

Is there a practical difference, in the marriage recognition context, between the Klaxon rule and the “federal common law” rule that the law of the domicile is controlling?

There would be, presumably, in a diversity case, if for example the spouses lived in different states. But for a couple living in the same state seeking federal recognition, it seems that applying a state’s choice-of-law rules and applying a state’s marriage recognition rules amounts to applying precisely the same set of rules. Perhaps because I’m nearly totally ignorant of this area of law, the way you’ve framed this confuses me a bit.

There is a big difference: a Klaxon rule will often pick a very different state than the parties’ domicile, because Klaxon depends entirely on what state the lawsuit is in, and federal lawsuits can often be filed in one of several different districts. (There is a legal doctrine called venue that determines what district a lawsuit can be filed in.) So a [...]

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What’s Wrong With Borax

Yesterday I outlined the three different ways that courts have dealt with the concept of marriage in federal statutes. I ultimately hope to convince you that they should be using the so-called “common law” approach. But my argument is essentially one of process of elimination. So in this post I’ll explain why the “Borax” method of defining marriage without reference to state law is bad.

First of all, let me acknowledge a point made repeatedly by Andy Grewal in the comments. It is true, in a technical but important sense, that the meaning of the word “marriage” in a federal statute is a question of federal law. Congress gets to decide what it’s referring to when it uses that word, and so the “choice of law” question that I’ve been grappling with has a hidden premise, and the premise is that Congress did indeed intend the word to draw upon the state law concept of marriage.

Nonetheless, I think this premise is right. The Supreme Court has said that it is right, holding in Desylva v. Ballentine that the word “children” in the Copyright Act should be defined by reference to “the ready-made body of state law” because “there is no federal law of domestic relations, which is primarily a matter of state concern.” (The Court also went on to look at the law of a particular state, not to try to derive some sort of generic consensus state law.)

This approach makes sense too. When people think of marriage, as a legal matter, they think about the institution that is created and defined by state law. It doesn’t really make sense to ask for a court to ask whether a couple is “married” except in the state-law sense. This brings us back to the point that federal [...]

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What about Full Faith and Credit?

Before we dive deeper into the federal cases I blogged about this morning, I thought it would be helpful to clarify a point featured in several comments. Namely, isn’t the Full Faith and Credit Clause involved here somewhere? The answer is: not very much, and certainly not enough to make the problem go away.

The Constitution provides that “Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.” The clause has some application in this area, but it doesn’t force states to recognize marriages from other states for several reasons.

First of all, even though the Clause mentions “public acts,” it has not been interpreted to apply to statutes (like a law stating which marriages are valid) or marriage licenses with the same force it has for judicial proceedings. Relatedly, states have traditionally refused to give effect to another state’s statute if they think doing so is against their “public policy,” and this has been thought to be okay under the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

Moreover, even if the clause did normally require states to give effect to foreign legislation (or if the parties somehow get a judicial judgment based on their same-sex marriage), the clause delegates substantial power to Congress to decide what “effect” those acts, records, and proceedings have. And Congress has explicitly provided (in that other section of DOMA that I said wasn’t very important) that “No State . . . shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State . . . respecting a relationship between persons of [...]

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What Does the Federal Government Do?

So states have different rules about who can get married, and states also have different rules about which state’s law to look to when a same-sex couple moves around the country. Now it’s time to answer the question some of you have been patiently waiting with: what does the federal government normally do about this? As I’ve noted, outside of the DOMA context, the federal government usually looks to state law, and surely there must be other areas where state law differs. So what do the feds do?

The answer is … it’s an even bigger mess! Notice that as a matter of legal theory and doctrine the question we’re asking here isn’t necessarily marriage-specific. Rather, it can be asked more generally as: “when federal law relies upon state law, what’s the system for choosing which state’s law?” In the twentieth century, federal courts have adopted at least three different approaches to this problem.

One approach is based off of a choice-of-law classic called Klaxon v. Stentor Electric Manufacturing (I’ve always loved the name of this case, and it may be the real reason I got into conflicts in the first place). Klaxon is the rule that the courts apply to the similar problem in diversity cases. It says that you apply the same choice-of-law rule as would be applied by a state court in the state where the district court is physically located. If you sue in the federal district of New Jersey, you apply New Jersey choice-of-law principles; if you sue in the southern district of New York, you apply New York choice-of-law principles. It has nothing to do with where any of the actions in the case took place — it’s just about where the plaintiff decides to bring the lawsuit.

As I said, this [...]

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Some Questions and Some Answers about Marital Choice of Law

Here are a few follow-up questions to my first post this morning.

“Burt Likko” says: Prop. 8 is worded: “…only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” I have a hard time getting past the plain meaning rule to reach a result that an Iowan or Canadian same-sex marriage license would be “valid or recognized” in California.

Answer: Maybe. But note that in Strauss v. Horton, (starting on p. 128) the California Supreme Court has already made an exception to the text of that provision, holding that same-sex-marriages that preceded the enactment of Prop 8 are indeed valid and recognized in California. The court relied on background principles of anti-retroactivity, as well as respect for vested rights (and the state’s due process provision). And Maryland recognizes out-of-state same-sex marriages despite a law that provides that “only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid in this State.”

Would a marriage validly celebrated in another state — especially by a resident of that other state, though that is not the only scenario — be treated as a “vested right” that Prop 8 left intact? I do not know, but I am not as sure as the commenter is that the answer is obvious.

“Henry Clay” asks: I’ve been looking forward to this post because I’ve been wondering what examples there are of states not recognizing marriages from other states apart from the obvious examples of SSM and Jim Crow. Are you really going to just wave your hand at that (“sometimes they don’t”) or is there another post on the way?

Answer: If you really want to dig into the historical examples here, you’ll have to leave the blogs. The short answer is that most of the examples are indeed from same-sex marriage [...]

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Marital Choice-of-Law 101

So we’ve established that in a world without DOMA, state law is the natural place to look to figure out whether a same-sex couple is married. Here is where we meet our first conflict-of-laws problem.

You surely know that some states allow same-sex couples to marry, and others do not. So what happens when a couple lives in a no-same-sex-marriage state, but gets married out of state? Or lives and marries in a same-sex-marriage state, but then moves to a no-same-sex-marriage state? Well, it depends.

In Maryland (or Rhode Island, or New Mexico), the couple will still be treated as married, even though they couldn’t have gotten married in that state. In many other states, they won’t be. Texas is an extreme example: a same-sex couple moved there from Massachusetts and wasn’t even given access to divorce court, because Texas figured they were never married in the first place.

And in other states, the answer is still up in the air. Remember the controversy about District Judge Vaughn Walker’s same-sex relationship, and possible marriage plans? Steven Gillers suggested that if Walker had any interest in getting married, he could just travel to Iowa or another same-sex-marriage state. Ed Whelan’s response was that such a marriage should not be recognized in California. But the strange thing is that California law isn’t really clear on this point, so even after looking into it, I don’t know for sure how the California courts would apply Prop 8 to an out-of-state same-sex marriage.

Now, in a sense, this is not a new problem for the states. People have been getting married and moving around for a very long time. But there’s never been widespread agreement about the solution to that problem. Most of the time states defer to the state where the [...]

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