The ongoing dispute between the House Republican and Democratic leadership over the defense of federal laws banning recognition of same-sex married couples reached a new level today as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) claimed that a planned filing by the lawyers representing the House Republicans to oppose equal veterans benefits to a same-sex married couple would "clearly exceed" the authority given in 2011 to the House's general counsel.
In a planned court filing obtained by Metro Weekly that is expected to be filed on Monday, April 2, the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group -- which is controlled by a 3-2 House Republican leadership majority -- will be asking the court to intervene in the case of Tracey Cooper-Harris and her wife, Maggie, who are suing the federal government for equal veterans benefits in a cased backed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
According to the letter sent by Pelosi and Hoyer to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) today, the pair stated that they "strongly object" to the intervention and believe that it "clearly exceeds the scope of the original BLAG authorization."
Christine Sun, the deputy legal director at SPLC, tells Metro Weekly, "It's shameful that House Republicans would rather spend taxpayer money to defend discrimination than honor our gay and lesbian veterans."
The Cooper-Harris lawsuit -- like the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network's McLaughlin v. Panetta lawsuit -- raises claims based on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and two specific provisions of Title 38 of the U.S. Code, which relate to veterans benefits and independently define "spouse" as only pertaining to opposite-sex spouses.
It is the defense of those provisions in Title 38 that Pelosi and Hoyer claim fall outside the scope of the original authorization given on March 9, 2011. At that time, the five members of BLAG voted 3-2 along party lines to recommend that the House general counsel "take such steps as he considers appropriate ... to protect the interests of the House in litigation in which the Attorney General has ceased to defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act."
[UPDATE @ 11:45A SATURDAY: Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck tells Metro Weekly this morning, "It was determined through consultations with each office -- the process used to make such decisions regularly under then-Speaker Pelosi -- that a majority of the BLAG believes the constitutionality of this statute, which the Attorney General described as 'identical in material respect to the language of Section 3 of DOMA,' should be determined by the judicial branch, not through a unilateral decree of the President."
In other words, though no formal vote was held, Buck states that a majority of BLAG decided to expand the DOMA defense into including statutes like those in Title 38 that are essentially the same as DOMA.]
In explaining the lawsuit on its website, SPLC states, "Tracey Cooper-Harris served for 12 years in the U.S. Army and received multiple commendations. But because she's in a marriage with a person of the same sex, the government refuses to grant her the same disability benefits as heterosexual veterans."
Once informed of the planned intervention, Pelosi and Hoyer wrote to Boehner with their concerns, writing, "As members of the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), who were not consulted prior to this unwise decision, we strongly object to spending taxpayer money to intervene in this case against a decorated veteran, Tracey Cooper-Harris, and her spouse, Maggie Cooper-Harris. This decision clearly exceeds the scope of the original BLAG authorization, with which we initially disagreed."
Describing the specifics of the case and the claim by SPLC's lawyers that the denial of equal benefits is unconstitutional, Pelosi and Hoyer write: "We agree, and note that the U.S. Department of Justice has notified Congress that Section 3 of DOMA -- as well as the definitional portions in Title 38 dealing with military and veterans' benefits -- 'cannot be constitutionally applied to same-sex couples who are legally married under state law.' We applaud the decision of the Attorney General against defending indefensible discrimination."
In its planned filing, however, BLAG argues that DOMA and the relevant provisions of Title 38 -- which deal with veterans benefits -- are constitutional.
Specifically, in the planned filing, BLAG's lawyers state, "Section 101(3), (31) of Title 38 of the United States Code is consistent with, and does not violate, the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution -- as well as every other provision of the U.S. Constitution."
Pelosi and Hoyer have criticized the past DOMA defense by BLAG, but this is the first time that BLAG is planning to take action to defend a law other than DOMA in conjunction with these cases.
A spokesman for Boehner did not respond to a request for comment on Friday evening.
READ the full Pelosi/Hoyer letter below the jump.