“[U]nder the Constitution, the regulation and control of marital and family relationships are reserved to the States.”
— U.S. Supreme Court,
Sherrer v. Sherrer (1948)
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is an exception to the rule that a law’s title is as uninformative about the law’s purpose as the titles of Marx Brothers movies (“Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers,” “Animal Crackers”) are about those movies’ contents. DOMA’s purpose is precisely what its title says. Which is why many conservatives and liberals should be uneasy Wednesday when the Supreme Court hears arguments about its constitutionality.
Conservatives who supported DOMA should, after 17years’ reflection, want the act overturned because its purpose is constitutionally improper. Liberals who want the act struck down should be discomfited by the reason the court should give when doing this.
DOMA, which in 1996 passed the House 342 to 67 and the Senate 85 to 14, defines marriage for the purpose of federal law as a legal union between one man and one woman. Because approximately 1,100 federal laws pertain to marriage, DOMA’s defenders argue that Congress merely exercised its power to define a term used in many statutes. But before 1996, federal statutes functioned without this definition, which obviously was adopted for the “defense” of marriage against state policies involving a different definition. “Before DOMA,” an amicus brief submitted by a group of federalism scholars notes, “federal law took state law as it found it.”