The Volokh Conspiracy

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What will the SG do in National Coalition for Men v. Selective Service System?

If the Biden Administration refuse to defend the constitutionality of the male-only selective service, Congress will not likely intervene.


Under current federal law, only men are required to register for the draft. The Supreme Court upheld 50 U.S.C. § 3802(a) in Rostker v. Goldberg (1981). At the time, women could not serve in combat roles. But in 2016, the Obama Administration allowed women to participate in combat roles. Subsequently, the National Coalition for Men challenged the federal law as a violation of the Equal Protection component of the Fifth Amendment. In 2019, a federal district court judge in Houston declared the policy unconstitutional. But in 2020, the Fifth Circuit found that the district court's judgment "directly contradicts" Rostker.

The National Coalition for Men filed a cert petition on January 8. The SG's response was due on February 11. Acting SG Prelogar sought a one month extension.

This extension is requested to complete preparation of the government's response, which was delayed because of the heavy press of earlier assigned cases to the attorneys handling this matter.

One month later, the Acting SG requested another extension:

This extension is necessary because the attorneys with principal responsibility for preparation of the government's response have been heavily engaged with the press of previously assigned matters with proximate due dates.

What is going on here? Adam Liptak suggests that change may be afoot:

The Trump administration defended differing registration requirements in the appeals court. The Biden administration has twice sought extra time to respond to the petition seeking Supreme Court review in the case, National Coalition for Men v. Selective Service System, No. 20-928, and its brief is now due on April 14.

It is possible that the Biden Administration will agree with the petitioners and decline to defend the constitutionality of the statute. This move would echo the Obama administration's decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in Windsor. In both cases, these laws did not run afoul of any Supreme Court precedent. Rather, subsequent practices (arguably) cast doubt on the validity of past precedents. Lower courts cannot anticipatory disregard Supreme Court precedents, but the executive branch apparently can.

But there would be one significant difference between this case, and Windsor. In 2011, the House was controlled by Republicans. As a result, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) retained Paul Clement to intervene in the case. Now, both houses are controlled by Democrats. If DOJ sends a 530(d) notification to Congress, and there is no majority to defend the statyute, what happens? In my view, the case would be over, as there is no adversity. The federal law would not be enforced by the current administrations, but the next administration could resume enforcing it. (Good luck with rescinding millions of female registrations). Or, the Court could keep the case alive by appointing an amicus. (Hell, make it Paul Clement for nostalgia's sake. Though, this case arose from the 5th Circuit, so we would likely see a CT clerk.) And if the Court upholds the statute, the Biden administration would have to continue enforcing the regime.

Of course, Congress could also repeal this statute. But that move would require political accountability. It is much easier to decline to defend a law, and let it fall into desuetude.

The Acting SG will soon have to make another difficult decision. The Court granted review in US v. Tsarnaev, the Boston marathon bombing case. President Biden has stated he opposes the death penalty. Adam Liptak reports:

After the appeals court ruling, lawyers for the federal government during the Trump administration urged the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The case presents President Biden with an early test of his stated opposition to capital punishment. Were the administration to decide not to pursue the death penalty against Mr. Tsarnaev, the Supreme Court case would become moot.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, answered generally when asked about how Mr. Biden would approach the case.

"He has grave concerns about whether capital punishment as currently implemented is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness," Ms. Psaki said at a press briefing on Monday. "He has also expressed his horror at the events of that day and Tsarnaev's actions."

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Will his SG defend the death penalty sentence below? If he doesn't, then presumably DOJ would have to take the same position in all pending federal cases involving the death penalty. And these decisions would be final. If Biden no longer seeks the death penalty against Tsarnaev, I don't think a future President could seek to reimpose that sentence.

Yesterday, I observed that the decision to appoint an SG is extremely important. These two cases illustrate the high stakes.