Bill Clinton says he signed unconstitutional DOMA


Former President Bill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat who signed into law and implemented a wave of anti-gay rules and legislation, including the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on gays in the military, now repealed, and DOMA, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, now before the Supreme Court, issued an op-ed today repudiating, sort of, his action.

Clinton: “The justices must decide whether it is consistent with the principles of a nation that honors freedom, equality and justice above all, and is therefore constitutional. As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution.”

He stops well short of an apology, saying only that “our laws may at times lag behind our best natures.”

In fact, he says he sought to soften DOMA’s effect, which took the full force of law with his signature, saying he included a signing statement, which has no force of law: :”When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that ‘enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.’”

His gay former aide Richard Socarides notes Richard Socarides that it is “extremely rare for former Presidents to admit mistakes made in office, and rarer still for one to disavow a major piece of legislation.”

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on DOMA March 27.

Clinton’s bungling of the gays in the military issue upon first taking office in 1993 not only led to codifying the ban but unsettled his first year in office. By 1996, Republicans had discovered same-sex marriage as a potent wedge issue. Clinton succumbed easily, as did an overwhelming majority of the Senate, with the quite notable exceptions of California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and the House.

Socarides captures the atmosphere at the time: “Inside the White House, there was a genuine belief that if the President vetoed the Defense of Marriage Act, his reëlection could be in jeopardy.”

Now it’s safe for Clinton to come out. Perhaps his actions have been weighing on his conscience.

Carolyn Lochhead