This morning the Supreme Court voted by a 5-4 margin that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife for the purpose of federal law, is unconstitutional. But why? Is it because Section 3 violates long-standing principles of federalism that favor state power to define and regulate family relations? Or is it because Section 3 violates the Fifth Amendment rights of gays and lesbians to equal protection of the laws? The answer, in effect, is none of the above. In a 26-page opinion brimming with constitutional catch phrases but containing no coherent rationale, the Court delivered an outcome that many find politically favorable but that no serious reader could possibly find legally sound.
There are many strong arguments against the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA. As I argued in the May issue of COMMENTARY, the most compelling argument is that the statute represents an unprecedented encroachment by the federal government upon the power of the states to regulate and define marital relations. Indeed, at the opinion’s outset, this seems to be the line of reasoning the majority is going to adopt in overturning Section 3. “By history and tradition,” the majority writes, “the definition and regulation of marriage … has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States.” The majority continues in this vein for about seven pages… before announcing that federalism is irrelevant to the case!
“The State’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case quite apart from principles of federalism,” the majority writes–and not because the state has exclusive sovereignty over the regulation of marital relations. Rather, according to the majority, the power of the state is central because in this case New York State passed a statute of which the majority approved. The recognition by New York State of same-sex marriage “enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community.” According to the majority, the federal government snatched away that “recognition, dignity, and protection” in a fit of homophobic animus with the Defense of Marriage Act. “What the State of New York treats as alike the federal law deems unlike by a law designed to injure the same class the State seeks to protect.”
This is starting to look like an equal protection argument until the majority again veers off course. It does not engage in a rigorous equal protection analysis based on an established standard of constitutional scrutiny–the rational basis test, which seeks some legitimate government interest underpinning a statute, or the strict scrutiny test, which seeks some compelling government interest supporting a statute, or even the heightened scrutiny test, which is an intermediate level of review. Instead, the Court declares DOMA a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection component demanding “careful consideration.”
Careful consideration of what?
The Court does not say. To wit, careful consideration is a standard of review conferred upon menus, brochures, and resumes, not constitutional claims for equal protection of the laws. So while supporters of same-sex marriage celebrate the outcome in United States v. Windsor, the victory may well prove pyrrhic. The degree of constitutional protection to which homosexuals are entitled is no more clear today than it was on the day that DOMA was enacted in 1996. What is more, proponents of federalism have cause for concern. By refusing to hold categorically that the states are sovereign over the regulation of familial relations within their boundaries, the Court left open the possibility of future federal legislation in that field. The Court’s decision in Windsor has neither vindicated gay rights nor championed federalism. Rather, with what Justice Scalia scathingly characterizes as a “disappearing trail of . . . legalistic argle-bargle,” the majority has presented the nation with a policy choice clothed in tatters of doctrine.