By David A. Isaacson
The Justice Department announced 23 February, that, based in part on the recommendation of Attorney General Eric Holder, President Obama has determined that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, and will no longer defend it in court. This is because, facing litigation within the jurisdiction of a circuit court of appeals (the Second Circuit) that has never ruled on the appropriate standard of review to be applied to laws concerning sexual orientation, the Administration determined that a heightened standard of review is appropriate, and that Section 3 of DOMA cannot withstand review under such a standard (although the Justice Department had previously argued that Section 3 could survive the looser rational-basis test applicable under the precedent of some courts of appeals).
The announcement is available online here, and a related letter sent by Attorney General Holder to Speaker of the House John Boehner is available here.
The announcement states, however, that Section 3 of DOMA will remain in effect until either it is repealed or “there is a final judicial finding that strikes it down,” and until such time “the Executive Branch will continue to enforce the law.” The letter to Speaker Boehner states even more specifically that “the President has instructed Executive agencies to continue to comply with Section 3 of DOMA, consistent with the Executive’s obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, unless and until Congress repeals Section 3 or the judicial branch renders a definitive verdict against the law’s constitutionality.”
Moreover, there is some risk that any challenge to Section 3 of DOMA could be less likely to succeed in the immigration context than in other contexts, given the “plenary power” doctrine and the history of judicial deference to Congress in this context – as in Fiallo v. Bell, 430 U.S. 787 (1977), where the Supreme Court upheld a provision of the INA that discriminated against illegitimate children – although it is also possible that Section 3 of DOMA will be voided in all contexts by a judicial holding that it is, as a general matter, unconstitutional.
This risk and others were discussed in more detail in a July 8, 2010 advisory from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) following their victory in a district court case challenging Section 3 of DOMA, http://www.immigrationequality.org/template.php?pageid=1115.
The concerns raised by GLAD in its previous advisory continue to apply, however, and it is therefore this author’s view that the preferable course in cases where removal proceedings have not already been commenced would generally be to await further developments before filing any petition or application based on a same-sex marriage.
David Isaacson is an Associate at Cyrus D. Mehta and Associates, PLLC where he works on immigration and nationality law matters. Mr. Isaacson's practice includes asylum cases, other removal proceedings such as those based on criminal convictions or denied applications for adjustment of status, and federal appellate litigation, as well as a variety of family-based and employment-based applications for both nonimmigrant visas and permanent residence. He also assists clients in citizenship matters and late legalization matters. He received his J.D. in 2004 from Yale Law School, where he served as a Senior Editor of the Yale Law Journal. Following law school, Mr. Isaacson clerked for the Honorable Leonard B. Sand of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Prior to joining the firm, he worked in the Litigation Department at the law firm of Davis Polk and Wardwell, where he devoted a significant amount of time to pro bono immigration matters involving asylum, the Child Status Protection Act, INA section 245(i), and the immigration treatment of adopted children.