Do Presidents Have a Duty to Defend the Constitutionality of Laws they Believe to be Unconstitutional?

The Obama Administration’s decision not to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act has inspired a great deal of criticism from commentators who believe that it is an unwise or illegitimate extension of executive power. The critics include Richard Epstein, Curt Levey, and our own Orin Kerr, among others. John Yoo argues that this is a constitutionally permissible exercise of executive power, but an unwise one that contradicts the Democrats’ position on other executive power issues.

I’m not a fan of either the Obama Administration or some of the legal arguments they have made in support of the claim that DOMA is unconstitutional. But I do think that they made the right call here. If a President genuinely believes that a federal statute is unconstitutional he has a duty not to defend it.

I. The President’s Duty to Defend the Constitution Supersedes His Duty to Uphold Federal Statutes When the Two Conflict.

Let’s start with first principles. The president takes an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution. His duty to uphold the Constitution supersedes his obligation to enforce federal statutes when the two come into conflict. After all, federal statutes are only legitimate in so far as they are constitutional. One of the greatest threats to the Constitution is the enactment and enforcement of unconstitutional laws that exceed the powers of government.

Ever since George Washington, presidents have exercised their own judgment in assessing the constitutionality of federal laws, and have not simply deferred to the courts or to Congress. Each branch of government has an independent responsibility to assess the constitutionality of current and proposed laws. This is not incompatible with the duty of the president or Congress to obey judicial decisions that strike down a statute, since the Constitution gives the courts jurisdiction over all cases arising under it. But if the courts haven’t yet ruled on the issue, nothing prevents the president or Congress from making a considered independent judgment that the statute is nonetheless unconstitutional and acting accordingly.

Thus, if the president genuinely believes that DOMA or any other federal statute is unconstitutional, he has at least a prima facie duty not to defend it in court, and possibly a duty not to take actions to enforce it either, as part of his exercise of prosecutorial discretion (a traditional executive power). Obviously, the president can still choose to defer to Congress or the courts in ambiguous cases where he is not sure whether a statute is constitutional or not. It would have been perfectly legitimate for the Obama Administration to conclude that they are not sure whether DOMA is constitutional, and therefore will defer to the considered judgment of Congress until such time as the Supreme Court definitively decides the issue. But the President apparently has a considered view that the statute really is unconstitutional, and not merely uncertain in its status. If so, his duty to the Constitution requires him take the action that he did.

II. Practical Considerations.

Many of the critics of Obama’s decision cite the danger that allowing presidents to refuse to defend statutes they consider unconstitutional would allow them to negate any laws the administration happens to disagree with, simply by not arguing for them in court. This is a reasonable concern. But I think it is overblown.

The fact that the administration chooses not to defend a federal law doesn’t mean that it won’t have other able defenders. In practice, virtually any significant federal law is likely to be supported by states and/or private parties who have standing to intervene. For example, any of the 45 states that today forbid gay marriage would probably have standing to defend its constitutionality on the grounds that otherwise they might have to extend tax credits and other government benefits to resident couples who have entered into same-sex marriages in other states. If a future Republican administration chooses not to defend the constitutionality of the individual mandate, both state governments who support it and various private parties who benefit from it materially would have standing to intervene. For example, insurance companies support the mandate because it requires people to buy their products and that financial stake in the law is surely sufficient to give them standing.

Indeed, supporters of a challenged law should prefer that its defense be handled by a party that is genuinely committed to it, rather than a hostile Justice Department that is only litigating the case because they believe they can’t get out of it. Ed Whelan, a prominent critic of the Obama Administration’s handling of the DOMA litigation, claims that the “administration has been sabotaging DOMA litigation from the outset” by refusing to make the best possible arguments in the law’s defense. If so, wouldn’t DOMA supporters be better off if the statute’s defense were handled by parties who actually believe in their case and genuinely want to win it?

Past experience supports the conjecture that a president’s unwillingness to defend a federal statute doesn’t necessarily doom it to defeat. This is not the first time that a president refused to defend the constitutionality of a federal law or regulation. In 1989, as Jim Copland points out, the George H.W. Bush administration refused to defend the constitutionality of federal affirmative preferences in the Metro Broadcasting case. In the 1982 Bob Jones case, the Reagan administration refused to defend an IRS policy denying tax exemptions to a university that practiced racial segregation for religious reasons. Significantly, both policies were ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court, as other extremely able lawyers were found to defend them. For example, the Bob Jones case was won by prominent Washington, DC lawyer William Coleman.

In recent years, federal courts have gradually relaxed standing rules, making it easier for a variety of parties – especially state governments – to bring lawsuits or intervene in existing ones. Thus, it is highly unlikely that a president’s refusal to defend a statute in court will mean that it won’t find able defenders elsewhere. If there is still a problem, the proper solution is to further loosen restrictive standing requirements, which should be eliminated anyway for reasons I explained here.

UPDATE: I should add that it might also be legitimate for the president to adopt a general policy of deferring to congressional judgment on issues relating to the constitutionality of federal statutes, if he believes that Congress’ judgment on these matters is likely to be systematically superior to that of the executive branch. But I think any such presumption is at best dubious in an era when Congress generally enacts whatever statutes it wants with little or no serious consideration of constitutional constraints on its power.

UPDATE #2: I have changed around some of the wording in this post for the sake of clarity.

UPDATE #3: It may be that it will be harder for states to get standing to defend DOMA than I suggest above, because the President is only declining to defend the constitutionality of Section 3 (forbidding federal government recognition of same sex marriages contracted in the states), while continuing to argue the provisions in DOMA that allow states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages contracted elsewhere. Nonetheless, I think states can get standing. Some state tax benefits depend on federal law recognition of marriage, as also does some federal funding of state government programs. Given that even a small fiscal effect is enough to get standing under current precedent, the states will likely be able to find something – as might various private parties opposed to same-sex marriage.