Supreme Court

Obama Flip-Flops on Judicial Activism in Gay Marriage Case


In April 2012, less than a week after the Supreme Court concluded three days of oral arguments over the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama explained to reporters why the Supreme Court's conservative justices had no business overturning his signature law. "For years what we've heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and — and passed law," Obama said. "Well, [the health care law is] a good example."

The Supreme Court considered another "good example" yesterday when it heard oral argument over the constitutionality of Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, also a "duly constituted…and passed law." Yet when Solicitor General Donald Verrilli stood before the nine "unelected" justices, he urged them to practice something other than judicial restraint.

"The only way" the arguments "for the constitutionality of this statue have any prospect of being upheld," Verrilli told the Court, "is if the Court adopts the minimal rationality standard of Lee Optical." Lee Optical refers to the 1955 case of Williamson v. Lee Optical, where the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a state regulation under the most lenient standard of judicial inquiry available: the rational-basis test. "It is enough," the Court held in that case, "that is might be thought that the particular legislative measure was a rational way" for lawmakers to proceed.

As Solicitor General Verrilli understands very well, rational-basis review by the courts is usually the equivalent of a rubber-stamp in favor of government power, precisely why he stressed that the DOMA case presents "a different kind of situation" than Lee Optical.

It was an atypical performance by the Obama administration, which is normally in the habit of reading federal power in the broadest of terms. For instance, in the main brief the federal government submitted in last year's health care case, it asserted, "Congress had far more than a rational basis for concluding that" the absence of health insurance "has a deleterious effect on interstate commerce."

But unlike the health care case, where the White House wanted to save the law and therefore sought maximum deference from the justices, the federal government in this case wants to see DOMA struck down and therefore favors more aggressive judicial tactics—hence the lobbying effort against relying on Lee Optical as a relevant precedent.

This is not what I would call an internally consistent legal philosophy, but that impediment has not stopped the White House before.

NEXT: Mini-Supernovas Discovered

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. If they overturn DOMA on states’ rights grounds, won’t they have to uphold prop 8?

    1. One might think so, but I’ve heard “serious” people argue otherwise – even express indignation at the idea of linking the two cases.

      1. Step one, determine the outcome that you would like. Step two, reverse engineer some reasoning to get you there. Step three, consensus!

        1. It’s how the Supreme Court works anyway, so why not make it work for you?

  2. Last year it was – “I thought you conservitards were all about judicial restraint – well restrain yourselves and uphold the ACA.” Done.

    This year it’s “I thought you conservitards were for federalism – so strike down DOMA Section 3 already!”

  3. Does the grass “flip-flop” when the wind changes direction?

  4. maybe the next “Obama flip-flops” story should be about the number of Kerry’s he has taken.

  5. Does anyone have a consistent philosophy with respect to judicial activism? Not even the supreme court justices who claim to be concerned about it manage to stick to it if it means they don’t get their preferred outcome.

    1. You should probably throw a “BOOOOSHHH!” in there for good measure. Everyone knows pointing out someone else’s flaws magically clears Dear Leader’s name.

  6. Maybe they can do some weird linguistical gymnastics to make it work. Last year it was PenalTax, maybe it will be MariUnion so the spirit of DOMA can remain intact but some of the functioning mechanisms have to go back to the drawing board.

    I laugh at the thought now, but I don’t think I’d take joy in the disappoint of the leftist-gay community, despite their raging hypocrisy right now.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.