The Fate of the Marital Union: Is DOMA Approaching Its Last Day?

Written by Lisa Alexander, Public Relations Chair, Albany Government Law Review

Introduction

DOMA’s days might be numbered.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court.[1] While the DOJ will continue to appear in litigation and “represent the interests of the United States,”[2] it will no longer argue that Section 3 of DOMA is constitutional as it is applied to same-sex couples.[3] This decision has sparked heated debate and a flurry of proposed legislation.  Though riddled with controversy, the facts support that the executive made an appropriate, and arguably necessary, decision.

A Brief History of DOMA

The Defense of Marriage Act was enacted in 1996.  The crux of the current controversy is Section 3, which defines marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”[4] DOMA was enacted, at least in part, as a response to Hawaii’s Supreme Court decision Baehr v. Lewin.[5] In Baehr, the court found that while the applicant same-sex couples did not have a fundamental right to marry pursuant to the right to privacy, they could argue their equal protection theory on remand.[6] The possibility that homosexual men and women might attain a marriage license in Hawaii and that their home states would have to recognize the unions’ legality under the Full Faith and Credit Clause was too much for Congress to bear. DOMA easily passed through both the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.[7]

The legislative record illustrates Congress’ judgments about the definition of marriage and the morality behind it.  Some members of Congress firmly believed that marriage could only be between a man and a woman.  For instance, Representative Barr remarked that “[M]arriage throughout the entire history of not only our civilization but Western civilization has meant the legal union between one man and one woman.”[8] Others emphasized that the homosexual marriage question was a moral one, and that such marriages were morally wrong.  Representative Hoke remarked:

One of the things that was said during the debate that I think is probably the most preposterous . . .  is that Congress has no business legislating morality . . . The fact is that we legislate morality on a daily basis. It is through the law that we as a nation express the morals and the moral sensibilities of the United States, and what is morality except to decide what is right and what is wrong? That is what morality is all about.[9]

Continue reading “The Fate of the Marital Union: Is DOMA Approaching Its Last Day?”

Vertical (Mis)Communication: “Re-criminalization” of Marijuana in Massachusetts and Newfound Federal Deference to State Marijuana Laws

Stephen Dushko, Staff Writer

On November 4, 2008, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts voted on a ballot question entitled “An Act Establishing a Sensible State Marihuana Policy,” which had the effect of decriminalizing the possession of amounts of marijuana one ounce or less.1 The Act passed by a sixty-five percent majority vote.2 Under the new law, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is a civil infraction, subject only to a $100 fine and forfeiture of the marijuana; all other criminal and civil penalties are prohibited, with an important exception.3 Previously, possession of any amount of marijuana was subject to imprisonment of up to six months and a fine of up to $500.4 The fact that a majority of voting citizens in Massachusetts favored decreasing penalties for marijuana possession may indicate that the prevailing social norms in Massachusetts, concerning consumption of THC,5 have changed since marijuana was initially outlawed, or it may reflect a recognition that the economic and social costs of labeling marijuana use criminal outweigh the benefits.6 Regardless of the rationale, possession of a small amount of marijuana is no longer an arrestable offense under Massachusetts state law.

Apart from the obvious implications for Massachusetts as a whole, this change in the law has different implications for the localities within the state, and provides an opportunity to examine the interaction with local, state, and federal law.  On the local level, governments that wish to maintain the more stringent set of rules are driven to enact regulations that increase penalties for possession or use of marijuana.  Framingham, Massachusetts, for example, enacted health regulations shortly after the state act went into effect that increased the penalties both for the user and the owner of any public establishment in which marijuana is used.7 Smoking marijuana in public, in Framingham, is now subject to a $50 fine, and the owner of an establishment in which a patron smokes marijuana will pay $100 for the first incident. 8 For the second offense, a $200 fine is imposed and up to $300 for the third.9 While these penalties are certainly not as severe as the previous state law, it is apparent that a majority of the Framingham town board was on the minority side of the Question 2 vote.

At first blush, this looks like a locality rebuffing the decision of the majority of Massachusetts for lessening the penalty for possession.  However, § 32L specifically provides that the political subdivisions of the state may enact ordinances or bylaws to prohibit public consumption of marijuana.10 Framingham is not the only example of a town that has either taken advantage of, or considered taking advantage of, this exception to the new general rule.11 It is also of paramount importance to consider the fact that the general federal prohibition on both consumption and possession of marijuana is still in effect.  The Supreme Court has found this prohibition constitutional and unaffected by state law to the contrary.12 Continue reading “Vertical (Mis)Communication: “Re-criminalization” of Marijuana in Massachusetts and Newfound Federal Deference to State Marijuana Laws”