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An attorney general's job is to defend the law -- no exceptions

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    Jan. 29, 2014: Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

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    June 19, 2012: Attorney General Eric Holder on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

In a speech Tuesday, United States Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed a dangerous and accelerating trend that has seen a half dozen state attorneys general turn against the laws they swore to uphold by siding with plaintiffs challenging their state’s ban on gay marriage. 

Last week, Oregon’s Ellen Rosenblum became the latest AG to abdicate her duty to defend state law. And earlier this month, a federal judge struck down Virginia’s traditional definition of marriage after Attorney General Mark Herring refused to defend it.

Herring’s defense of his abdication was typical of these attorneys general. He said he was putting Virginia “on the right side of history.” But the job of an attorney general is law not history, and Herring and the other AGs have failed at that job. 

If attorneys general failed to defend other laws governing marriage – say, the requirements for child support – citing their personal view of the constitution, people across the political spectrum would be howling.

Herring put himself on the wrong side of the Virginia constitution, which bans same-sex marriage, the wrong side of recent Supreme Court rulings and most importantly, on the wrong side of his sworn duty to defend Virginia’s laws. 

While he was at it, Herring also violated his ethical obligation to zealously represent his clients -- the people of Virginia -- who enacted the gay marriage ban through a 2006 ballot initiative.

Whether on the state or federal level, an attorney general’s obligation to defend the laws he is charged with upholding allows no exceptions for moral indignation, predictions about constitutional evolution, or political ambition (Herring is already touting his decision in campaign emails). 

The only recognized exception is where a law is clearly unconstitutional in light of existing legal precedent. “That’s not yet the case with state laws banning same-sex marriage,” explains Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. 

In rulings last June, the Supreme Court explicitly declined to decide whether states can ban same-sex marriage.

The state attorneys general who are putting political correctness above their duty are following in the footsteps of Attorney General Holder, who announced in 2011 that the Justice Department would not defend the Defense of Marriage Act’s (DOMA) traditional definition of marriage in court because he believes it to be unconstitutional. This despite “little support in Supreme Court doctrine” for Holder’s constitutional interpretation, according to UCLA Law Professor and gay marriage supporter Adam Winkler.

Until Holder’s announcement, U.S. attorneys general of both parties agreed that the Constitution’s command that the president “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” includes a duty to defend all but the most clearly unconstitutional laws. 

President Carter’s Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti, emphasized the narrowness of the exception with an example he gave – a law requiring the arrest and imprisonment of all members of the opposition party without trial.

Professor Winkler warns that Holder’s decision “sets a terrible precedent that could well come back to haunt those who are cheering the President’s decision. Don’t be surprised if a President Palin points to Obama’s decision when announcing her refusal to enforce and defend [ObamaCare].” 

The Obama administration’s failure to defend DOMA is part of the larger controversy over the president’s alleged failure to faithfully execute federal laws, including ObamaCare, welfare reform and immigration laws. There too, dangerous precedents are being set.

Those who are cheering should consider that the executive branch’s duty to defend laws is a bedrock principle of our republic. The duty is essential to any democracy, because it makes the executive a servant rather than master of the law, obligating him to abide by the people’s judgment unless and until the courts make a final determination that their judgment is irreconcilable with the constitution.

The duty to defend is also essential to our system of checks and balances, which places lawmaking authority in the legislature and – in some states – the voters as well. 

By undermining duly enacted laws enshrining a traditional definition of marriage, Holder and the state attorneys general are attempting to usurp that authority. 

Similarly, their actions threaten to deprive the courts of their role as the final adjudicators of constitutional challenges, as happened in California when Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to defend the state’s gay marriage ban.

If the executive branch were free to approach each law on the books with a de novo constitutional review, the result would be chaos. Every law would become a question mark upon the election of a new president, attorney general or governor.

Abdication of the duty to defend “will ultimately weaken the legal and moral authority that attorneys general have earned and depend on,” warns Attorney General Suthers. “We will become viewed as simply one more player in a political system rather than as legal authorities in a legal system.”

Given these grave implications, it is remarkable that the actions of Holder and the state AGs have generated so little outrage among the public and media, outside of conservative quarters. 

If attorneys general failed to defend other laws governing marriage – say, the requirements for child support – citing their personal view of the constitution, people across the political spectrum would be howling.

The muted response likely reflects just how effective gay marriage advocates have been in politically marginalizing their opponents by portraying them as prejudiced Neanderthals (never mind that President Obama supported a traditional definition of marriage until 2012). Holder and the state AGs are relying on an air of moral superiority to disguise their lawlessness.

What these attorneys general don’t seem to appreciate is that the damage they are doing to the duty to defend cannot be cabined to this one issue. They will live to regret the path they paved for generations of AGs eager to usurp legislative power and advance their careers by failing to defend politically inconvenient laws.

Curt Levey is a constitutional law attorney and the President of the Committee for Justice.  He can be reached on Twitter at @Curt_Levey.