If DOMA Goes Away, Even on Limited Grounds, That’s ‘Huge Progress’

June 19, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

In a final discussion about marriage equality at the 2013 ACS National Convention, Paul M. Smith, a longtime Supreme Court litigant, discussed why he thinks in the long run marriage equality will win the day across the country.

Smith (pictured) successfully argued before the Supreme Court against a Texas sodomy law resulting in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas opinion. That opinion, among at least one other high court opinion, has helped advance equality for the LGBT community. The two cases before the Supreme Court – Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor center squarely on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. But in both cases the high court has ways to avoid going too far. In Perry, the case raising constitutional challenges to California’s Proposition 8 could be dismissed on standing grounds or it could be narrowly tailored to only affect that state. In Windsor, the justices could invalidate the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on federalism grounds and not address whether laws targeting LGBT persons for discriminatory treatment subvert the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

Smith, a longtime proponent of equality, talked with me about why he thinks it may be appropriate for the high court to avoid a finding that would require all states to recognize same-sex marriages.

Regarding Windsor, the case involving DOMA, Smith said his “expectation is that the Court will probably reach the merits in the DOMA case and hold it unconstitutional. It’s possible though that they there may not be five votes to hold it unconstitutional under the equal protection clause. Instead Justice Kennedy seemed to be interested more in federalism arguments. My own view about that is -- that would be fine. If the law goes away, the law goes away and a whole lot of happy couples will be able to be treated as fully married by their own federal government. And that would be huge progress.”

He continued, “In terms of Perry, if I were a justice I would probably not decide all 50 states have to marry same-sex couples this year. The change that is happening in public opinion is so dramatic, the political changes that are sweeping the country are so dramatic that I think the Court is a part of that process; it played a great role in getting it started with the Lawrence decision and others. But they have ways of being a part of it without taking it all the way to the finish line. And I think they would prefer to do it that way, and I don’t tend to disagree with them. I know that many younger people who would think that is crazy; that there is no reason why the Court shouldn’t do what’s right, right now. And I certainly think that the right answer in the long run will be that there should be marriage equality mandated by the federal Constitution.”

Smith and Mary Bonauto, of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), provide more detail on federalism and marriage equality in this guest post. Watch the brief interview with Smith below or visit here.