WASHINGTON DC — The clearest sign that a majority of the Court believes the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional is how tenaciously three of the most conservative justices fought to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling on its constitutionality in the first place. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Alito fought tooth and nail to dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds — an effort that is likely, if not certain, to fail. Most of the left-of-center bloc appeared skeptical of the conservatives’ theory, and Justice Kennedy at one point stated that it “seems to me there’s injury here” sufficient to justify the Court hearing the case. Kennedy did make a pointed comparison between President Obama’s decision not to defend DOMA and President Bush’s infamous signing statements, but this is more likely a gratuitous swipe at the President, than a sign that Kennedy will ultimately vote to kill the case.
Should the Court reach the merits, Kennedy left little doubt that he would vote to strike down DOMA, but not on grounds that bear any resemblance to the Constitution. DOMA is unconstitutional because it violates the Constitution’s guarantee that all persons receive the “equal protection of the laws.” Kennedy, however, largely brushed over this fact to hone in on a states’ rights argument similar to one tea partiers have used to claim Medicare is unconstitutional. In Kennedy’s words, DOMA is problematic because it runs “in conflict with what has always been thought to be the essence of the State police power, which is to regulate marriage, divorce, custody.”
This is not an accurate description of what DOMA does. The primary effect of DOMA is not to “regulate marriage” it is to define who does who does not receive certain federal benefits — benefits such as tax exemptions, Social Security benefits for spouses and veterans benefits. The overwhelming majority of these benefits were enacted through Congress’ power under the Constitution to tax and spend money, a power which necessarily includes the authority to decide who is taxed and who receives federal spending. Kennedy, however, seems to think that Congress cannot define the scope of federal benefits in ways that may also touch upon marriage. There is no basis for this in the Constitution’s text.
There is, however, a limited basis for Kennedy’s views in the Constitution’s history. In the earliest days of the Republic, James Madison proposed a narrow, extra-textual view of the Constitution that would have limited Congress’ power to tax and spend money to subjects specifically mentioned elsewhere in the document. Alexander Hamilton, by contrast, argued that the we have to follow the words of the Constitution we have — not limits that cannot be found in the Constitution’s text. Hamilton won, and a unanimous Supreme Court agreed with him many years later.
If Madison had won, we likely could not have Medicare, because the Constitution does not specifically mention health care. We likely could not have Social Security, because it does not mention retirement. Medicaid, food stamps, and, indeed, virtually all of the modern American safety net would probably be on the chopping block. Kennedy’s suggestion, that judges can write a “marriage” exemption into the Constitution that doesn’t exist may be the closest that any justice has ever come to embracing Madison’s rejected theory — and it would be truly dangerous if five justices ever signed on to it.
Fortunately, this outcome is unlikely. Justice Kagan proposed an alternative theory: that the federal government’s unusual decision to step into marital policy when they historically have not done so is one of many pieces of evidence showing that DOMA was enacted because of impermissible animus against gay people. This is a sensible way to acknowledge that the federal government does not usually enact marriage laws, and presents none of the potential threats to the American safety net that Kennedy’s theory imposes. The four liberals are likely to sign onto this theory.
The greatest irony, however, may be that if Kennedy’s fellow conservatives were not so blinded by their desire to uphold the unconstitutional DOMA statute, they could actually do significantly more to advance right-wing values by joining an opinion striking DOMA on states’ rights grounds. Instead, they will stand alone on a hill defending discrimination, and likely receive nothing for their efforts.