The liberal justices sharply questioned former George W. Bush administration solicitor general Paul D. Clement, who is representing House Republican leaders who are defending DOMA.
He said the law, passed by overwhelming majorities in each chamber of Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, was a reaction to the prospect that Hawaiian courts were on the verge of approving same-sex marriage.
Congress feared that “by the operation of one state’s state judiciary, same-sex marriage is basically going to be recognized throughout the country,” Clement said. “And what Congress says is: ‘Wait a minute. Let’s take a timeout here. This is a redefinition of an age-old institution.’ ”
Clement said Congress was within its powers to define marriage for the benefits it bestows and to strive for “uniformity” across the country by limiting those benefits to heterosexual couples.
He was strongly challenged by Justice Elena Kagan. She said that when Congress “targets a group that is not everybody’s favorite group in the world,” the court has an obligation to examine, “with some rigor, to say, ‘Do we really think that Congress was doing this for uniformity reasons or do we think that Congress’s judgment was infected by dislike, by fear, by animus and so forth?’ ”
She caused a stir in the courtroom, which appeared to be mostly filled with supporters of same-sex marriage, when she quoted language from a House committee’s analysis of the law: “Congress decided to reflect an honor of collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.”
Clement replied: “Does the House report say that? Of course, the House report says that.” But he added that the court has never struck a statute “just because a couple of legislators may have had an improper motive.”
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the Obama administration, also sought to convince the court that the section of DOMA being challenged was motivated by prejudice.
When Roberts skeptically asked whether “the 84 senators who voted in favor of it and the president who signed it” were driven by animus, Verrilli said that was not the point.
The section, he said, “is discrimination.”
The case was brought by 83-year-old Edith Windsor, who watched from the second row. Windsor married Thea Spyer, her partner of more than 40 years, in Canada in 2007. Both were residents of New York. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her estate to Windsor.
At that time, the state of New York recognized the marriage. But because the marriage was not recognized by the U.S. government, Windsor paid a federal estate tax bill of more than $360,000 that would not have been assessed if she were married to a man.
The Obama administration agreed with the appeals court that ordered a refund but wanted the Supreme Court to render a definitive verdict on DOMA.
That led to the legal wrangling that dominated the first part of the argument and could lead to a decision that the case is not properly before the court.
A court-appointed lawyer, Harvard law professor Vicki C. Jackson, told the justices that Republican leaders in the House do not have proper standing to defend the law and that the Obama administration was not a viable party, because it agrees with the lower courts.
Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia were the most critical of the approach the Obama administration has taken on the law. Roberts said the administration’s agreement with the lower court meant it was making an extraordinary request to have the Supreme Court consider it.
“You’re asking us to do something we’ve never done before,” Roberts said.
When Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan acknowledged that it was unusual, Roberts shot back: “No, not unusual — totally unprecedented.”
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