Note: This article first appeared at Huffington Post.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of state laws that ban same-sex couples from getting married. The historic case has attracted a wide array of amicus briefs; People For the American Way Foundation joined religious and civil rights groups on a brief urging the Court to reject discriminatory marriage bans and challenging “religious liberty” arguments opposing marriage equality.
One fascinating brief was filed by the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. The original group by that name was led by Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was fired from his federal job for being gay and led some of the earliest gay-rights protests in the nation’s capital in the 1960s. The name and legacy have been revived by local activists Charles Francis and Pate Felts for the purpose of documenting decades of systematic anti-gay discrimination by the federal government. In partnership with pro bono attorneys from the firm of McDermott Will & Emery, the new Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is engaged in strategic “archive activism.” They are using the Freedom of Information Act to unearth a “culture of animus” that permeated the U.S. Civil Service Commission – now known as the Office of Personnel Management – and to bring to public light previously closed records about investigations challenging workers’ “loyalty” and “suitability.”
“The investigation and firing of gay and lesbian federal employees was like shooting fish in a barrel for the General Counsels and legal staff of the Civil Service Commission,” says Francis. “The animus, almost sports-like in their writings, is documented in decades of legal advisory files we discovered this year at the National Archives.”
Among the historical tidbits unearthed by the project: Nancy Reagan turning down a plea from a dying Rock Hudson for help getting into another hospital; and anti-gay activist Gary Bauer’s no-holds-barred, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to keep the White House from including a gay person on the nation’s first AIDS commission.
The Mattachine Society’s project is about preserving the historical record, but it also has an important legal purpose, which is demonstrating that anti-equality laws and regulations have long been grounded in hostility, or animus, that is not a permissible justification for discrimination. Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent from the Supreme Court decision in Windsor, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, demonstrates the importance of this archival work. Roberts suggested there is insufficient evidence – he waved it away as “snippets of legislative history” – to demonstrate that DOMA’s purpose was to “codify malice.” Added Roberts, “I would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry.”
There’s no escaping the brush of bigotry, the reeking stench of bigotry, exposed by the Mattachine Society’s brief, which links to more than 35 historical documents that demonstrate the ways that the Civil Service Commission, often in partnership with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and other law enforcement agencies, investigated people suspected of sexual “perversion” and robbed them of their federal jobs and careers.
From the amicus:
For decades, this animus was one of the basic assumptions of American life. It was so persistent, so prevalent, and so instrumental to the way that we structured our institutions, treated our fellow citizens, and organized our lives that, in retrospect, it is often overlooked….
For decades, both federal and state governments targeted and persecuted homosexuals, individuals suspected of being homosexual, and even those believed to have engaged in homosexual acts, regardless of actual sexual orientation. The stated rationale shifted over time—from concerns about national security to code words, such as “suitability”—but the point was always the same: government officials, federal and state, high and low, felt a complete revulsion toward homosexuals and wanted to purge the country of even the hint of homosexuality.
Animus, therefore, was a culture. And with that culture came a language. For decades, government officials referred to homosexuality in official, often highly confidential or privileged communications, as “unnatural,” “uniquely nasty,” “immoral,” “deviant,” “pervert[ed],” and an “abomination.” Even the FBI had a term for the program that it designed to rid the government of homosexuals—the “Sex Deviate Program.” Once it attached, whether based in fact or mere speculation, the label of homosexuality remained forever fixed. As one senior executive official wrote, “once a homo, always a homo.” And, as one state legislature put it, what homosexuals wanted was “recognition.” And “recognition” was something to fear….
The effort to purge “sex deviates” began well before President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order 10450, but that action explicitly made “sexual perversion” a disqualification from federal employment. Congress was in on the act as well. The Mattachine amicus quotes from a 1950 document from the US Senate Subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department:
There is no place in the United States Government for persons who violate the laws or the accepted standards of morality, or who otherwise bring disrepute to the Federal service by infamous or scandalous personal conduct . . . . It is the opinion of this subcommittee that those who engage in acts of homosexuality and other perverted sex activities are unsuitable for employment in the Federal Government.
The federal government also worked in concert with anti-gay activities being carried out at the state level. One of the documents uncovered by Mattachine’s Freedom of Information Act requests is a 1963 note from Civil Service Commission General Counsel L. V. Meloy to Charley Johns, chairman of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee on Homosexuality and Citizenship.
The infamous Johns Report wallowed in salacious descriptions of “the special world of homosexuality” and warned of “aggressive homosexuals” seeking recognition and legal equality. The report described teachers engaging in sex in public bathrooms and little league coaches seducing teenagers, asserting, “The plain fact of the matter is that a great many homosexuals have an insatiable appetite for sexual activities and find special gratification in the recruitment to their ranks of youth.” The report included a glossary of “sex offenses” that were illegal under Florida law and eight pages of homosexual slang and “deviate acts.”
Meloy’s letter asking for “several copies” of the report said that the “Federal Government has related problems in this area and … [the] investigation will shed additional light on a most difficult problem in suitability for government employment.” The Florida committee specifically targeted gay teachers but also resulted, according to the Mattachine amicus, in the removal of at least 37 federal employees.
The brief also documents that the Civil Service Commission shifted its strategies in response to court rulings challenging its policies. The brief goes into some depth documenting the case of William Dew, an African American Air Force veteran. Dew was married with a pregnant wife when he was fired from his job as an air traffic controller in 1958 for having admitted years earlier as part of a job application to the CIA that he had experimented with gay sex when he was in college. After a six-year legal battle, culminating in the Supreme Court agreeing to hear Dew’s appeal, the government settled with him. But rather than loosening the CSC’s anti-gay policies, the government strengthened its resolve in the wake of the Dew settlement and, in the words of the Mattachine amicus, “demonstrated its willingness to use all of its resources to crush homosexuals and those who engaged in homosexual acts with its suitability standards.”
Following a 1969 DC Circuit Court ruling that challenged the firing of federal workers for something that had nothing to do with the performance of their jobs, the CSC General Counsel at that time, Anthony Mondello, argued that federal agencies would have a hard time attracting quality workers if applicants knew they might have to work with “people who repeatedly engaged in serious misconduct offensive to community standards.”
The CSC and its successor, the Office of Personnel Management, continued to target gay federal employees throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s.
The Mattachine Society brief ends with an appeal to the Court’s history of addressing anti-gay animus:
The Dew case is important for another reason as well—one that goes to the heart of the cases now before this Court. For decades, there was no limit to the animus meted out against LGBT Americans and no end to its reach. It poisoned every institution in the United States and seeped into the lives of all Americans, not merely those of gays and lesbians. So too, the language of animus became commonplace among those in the highest positions in government: “homo,” “sexual deviant,” “pervert,” “abomination,” “uniquely nasty,” and other derogatory terms and phrases were used with bureaucratic ease as a way to define, cabin, and limit the citizenship of LGBT Americans. As the Dew case perfectly illustrates, the animus even extended to those who were not gay.
It was the courts—and in the case of Dew, this Court—that ultimately stepped in to set the course right. This Court knows animus when it sees it, and it has a well-established line of cases overturning laws that by their text, background history, and effect, relegate a class of citizens to second-class status. See, e.g., Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003); and United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). Indeed, this Court has already recognized the long history of discrimination and animus against homosexuals. See, e.g., Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 571.
The newly revealed documents cited herein merely reinforce what this Court already knows. For decades, there was a culture of animus against LGBT Americans that permeated every aspect of American life and every American institution. In many places, that culture continues to this day. To say that the marriage bans now at issue are not somehow the product of this historical animus is to ignore reality. We may not see the air that feeds the flame. But, for decades, animus against LGBT Americans fed the flames of hatred, revulsion, and disgust from which the current marriage bans arose.
The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is optimistic about the impact of its brief. “The government attorneys who administered the federal ban on homosexuals have met their match in our pro bono counsel McDermott, Will & Emery’s powerful amicus brief," says Francis, "The McDermott brief is a lasting account of an unconstitutional ‘culture of animus’ embedded through seven Presidencies.”
This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Some Supreme Court cases are really tough ones, with important, difficult, and complex legal questions about constitutional meaning or statutory interpretation, where justices have to choose between two powerful and compelling arguments. Sometimes the court is called upon to resolve an issue that has divided the circuit courts. Other times there is a lower court ruling so at odds with logic or precedent that it needs to be reviewed and corrected.
And then there's King v. Burwell, the Affordable Care Act subsidies case being argued this week.
Those challenging the law have an extremely weak legal case, there is no split in the lower courts, and there is no clearly wrong lower court ruling that needs to be corrected. This is a meritless case that was ginned up by conservatives seeking to enlist the Supreme Court in their political efforts to destroy the ACA. That at least four justices voted to hear the case is ominous enough. But a victory for the challengers would make it more clear than ever that political considerations are infecting a majority of the court.
Some background: Section 1311 of the ACA directs states to establish health insurance exchanges, creating competitive markets in every state for people to buy affordable insurance no matter where they live. But Congress also recognized that states might choose not do this, so Section 1321 says that in those cases the federal government should set up the exchange instead. The purpose of doing this was to ensure that even if states declined to set up an exchange pursuant to Section 1311, fully functional stand-ins would exist. This is essential to the structure of the law: The financial model relies on competitive markets with affordable insurance being available in every state.
To ensure affordability, the law also establishes subsidies for people below a certain income level to make sure they can buy insurance, which is necessary for the entire structure of the ACA to work. One subsection of the law establishes some key definitions, including an "eligible taxpayer" who is entitled to these subsidies, and the main criterion is income level. Try as you might, you won't find anything there saying that eligibility is at all tied to where someone lives.
A separate subsection says how to calculate the amount of the subsidy. Bizarrely, the conservative opponents of the ACA say that it is here that Congress chose to establish an enormously important additional eligibility criterion that, for some reason, they didn't put in the eligibility section: You have to live in a state that has set up its own exchange, rather than in one where the state has allowed the federal government to set it up instead.
This strange interpretation of the ACA depends on a deliberate misunderstanding of the subsidy provision's stating that the amount is based on the monthly premiums for a policy purchased through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. But to interpret this provision the way the anti-Obamacare activists do, we'd have to deliberately blind ourselves to how it clearly fits with the ACA as a whole.
So we're supposed to pretend that Congress didn't specifically empower the federal government to set up fully functional stand-ins for state exchanges in states that declined to create them. And we're supposed to think that Congress hid a critically important criterion for subsidy eligibility in a section on calculating the subsidy amount. And we're supposed to accept that Congress intended to undercut the financial viability of the law and thwart its central purpose of providing affordable health care to all. As D.C. Circuit Judge Harry Edwards wrote, "[i]t is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to crumble."
No one could possibly believe that. You can't possibly look at the text of the Affordable Care Act and interpret it in the way that its enemies have conjured up.
And as journalists like Glenn Kessler have pointed out, congressional Republicans who today insist that Congress intended for subsidy eligibility to depend on what state you live in were saying nothing of the sort when the law was being debated. Their statements at the time show they assumed subsidies would be available nationwide.
It is also clear that state legislators -- regardless of party -- deciding whether to set up their own exchanges never contemplated the possibility that choosing to let the federal government do it would deny much-needed subsidies to people in their state. In fact, that point is made quite effectively in an amicus brief authored by the Constitutional Accountability Center on behalf of members of Congress and state legislatures.
When this nonsensical lawsuit was heard at the Fourth Circuit, it was rejected by a unanimous panel of judges. In his concurring opinion, Judge Andre Davis wrote:
What [the ACA opponents] may not do is rely on our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.
Yet when the ACA opponents appealed to the Supreme Court, at least four justices (the minimum required to grant certiorari) agreed to hear the case.
It would be nice to believe that the only reason was to issue a 9-0 ruling slapping down this lawsuit and condemning those who would abuse the court system by seeking to enlist federal judges in their political fights. Unfortunately, this is the Roberts court, a court with a history of bending the rules, twisting the law, and doing whatever it takes to get to an outcome beneficial to conservative and corporate interests. With cases like Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, Ledbetter, Shelby County, and so many others, a narrow 5-4 majority has made opponents of the Affordable Care Act think they could gin up a meritless case and carry the day.
If the Roberts Court chooses to sabotage millions of Americans' access to health care, the consequences will be catastrophic for many everyday people, and possibly fatal to some. While there may be Americans who weren't paying attention to some of the wrongly decided cases noted above, it is hard to imagine any American missing this one -- and not knowing exactly who to blame.
Yesterday, People For the American Way members participated in a telebriefing to discuss the Supreme Court’s upcoming term and to preview some of the important cases the Court will be hearing this year. The call was kicked off by PFAW President Michael Keegan and moderated by PFAW Director of Communications Drew Courtney. PFAW’s Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon reviewed highlights of his recent report previewing the Supreme Court’s upcoming term and answered questions from members. Also on the call and answering questions were Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg and Executive Vice President Marge Baker.
Among the cases Gordon previewed were Young v. UPS, Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, Mach Mining v. EEOC, Holt v. Hobbs, and Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama / Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama. The issues addressed in these cases range from employment discrimination and workers’ rights, to religious liberty and voting rights.
He also discussed potential cases that the Court could still add for this term, which included cases on marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, and contraception coverage by religious nonprofits—the “sequels to Hobby Lobby.”
Members’ questions focused on how the country can move forward to change some of the more damaging decisions like Citizens United, and what each person could do to effect change and impact the courts. Emphasizing what is at stake this election, both PFAW President Michael Keegan and Gordon called on people to vote in November because “when you vote … for the Senate, you are voting for the next Supreme Court justice.”
Listen to the full audio of the telebriefing for more information.
In a recent interview with the New Republic, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reiterated her belief that Citizens United v. FEC was the worst ruling to be handed down from the Roberts court:
“If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”
The interview goes on to cover a range of topics, including her growing notoriety as an internet sensation as well as her plans to stay on the court as an active justice.
“As long as I can do the job full steam, I will stay here. I think I will know when I’m no longer able to think as lucidly, to remember as well, to write as fast. I was number one last term in the speed with which opinions came down. My average from the day of argument to the day the decision was released was sixty days, ahead of the chief by some six days. So I don’t think I have reached the point where I can’t do the job as well.”
In previous interviews Justice Ginsburg has described this Court’s campaign finance decisions as its biggest mistakes, alluding to the way in which money is “corrupting our system.”
Our affiliate PFAW Foundation recently released a report examining Justice Ginsburg’s vital role dissenting against the increasingly conservative rulings of the Roberts Court.