After President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department in February to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal lawsuits, House of Representatives leaders took up the statute's defense and hired the law firm King & Spalding, and attorney Paul Clement, to defend the prohibition on federal recognition of states' same-sex marriages.
King & Spalding then was strongly criticized by gay rights activists for accepting the job, in part because the firm was considered to have an LGBT-friendly reputation.
On April 25, King & Spalding withdrew from the matter, with its chairman saying that "the process used for vetting this engagement was inadequate."
It is not known if, or to what extent, the gay protests played a role in the firm's decision. Some reports speculated that, instead, there could have been concern over wording in the contract with the firm that prohibited the firm's partners and employees from lobbying or advocating for or against legislation in the House or Senate that would alter DOMA.
Following King & Spalding's withdrawal, Clement resigned from his job and accepted a position with another firm, where he said he will continue to defend DOMA.
"(R)epresentation should not be abandoned because the client's legal position is extremely unpopular in certain quarters," Clement said. "I recognized from the outset that this statute implicates very sensitive issues that prompt strong views on both sides. But having undertaken the representation, I believe there is no honorable course for me but to complete it."
Lambda Legal praised King & Spalding's withdrawal, saying, "We welcome the firm back to the right side of history."
The head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Kate Kendell, said that "DOMA does not deserve a lawyer."
"The Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to counsel applies to individuals in criminal cases," Kendell said, not to "unjust laws."
In abandoning its own defense of DOMA on Feb. 23, the Justice Department said it took that action because Obama had concluded that "classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of (legal) scrutiny" and, under that standard, DOMA is unconstitutional.
NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter called the heightened-scrutiny determination "history-changing."
"The president and the attorney general were ... right to conclude that because LGBT people have suffered a long history of discrimination in this country, laws that target people based on their sexual orientation are highly likely to be based on prejudice and should be presumptively considered unconstitutional," Minter said. "The president's leadership on this issue has forever changed the landscape for LGBT people in this country."
The section of DOMA in question reads: "In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."
Another section of DOMA purports to allow states to refuse to recognize other states' same-sex marriages, a right states likely already had before DOMA became law in 1996.