A big shakeup in the DOMA defense

A BIG SHAKEUP IN THE DOMA DEFENSE…. A couple of months ago, the Obama administration announced that it no longer considers the Defense of Marriage Act constitutional, and would stop defending the law against court challenges. Officials told Congress it could step in and defend DOMA if it wants to, and soon after, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the House would gladly do just that.

Last week, Boehner’s office announced it has hired former Bush Solicitor General Paul Clement to defend DOMA, and would pay Clement and his legal team from King & Spaulding as much as $500,000.

This morning, the story received quite a shake-up.

Law firm King & Spalding announced Monday it will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act on behalf of the U.S. House of Representatives. Afterward, Paul Clement, the partner who had taken the case, announced his resignation. […]

Shortly after the firm announced that it would no longer take the case, former Bush solicitor general Paul Clement, the partner charged with leading the firm’s defense, submitted his letter of resignation to Hays, which was passed along to The Huffington Post.

“My thoughts about the merits of DOMA are as irrelevant as my views about the dozens of federal statutes that I defended as Solicitor General,” he wrote. “Instead, I resign out of the firmly-held belief that a representation should not be abandoned because the client’s legal position is extremely unpopular in certain quarters. Defending unpopular position is what lawyers do.”

The interesting thing about Clement’s response is that it tells us a fair amount about what happened behind the scenes — King & Spalding, a major D.C. law firm, simply didn’t want to be responsible for fighting to defend the discriminatory law. It apparently made the firm look bad, and risked King & Spalding’s ability to recruit new attorneys. One assumes the partners have received more than a few angry calls over the last week.

Despite some earlier reports to the contrary, Clement will remain on the DOMA case, and will do so from a law firm led by former Bush administration officials. Clement will also continue to receive taxpayer money to defend the anti-gay law.

It’s unclear if the contract will need to be renegotiated. It’s also unclear why the House leadership’s existing legal team can’t handle the case, or why Boehner didn’t accept the services of many conservative lawyers who would likely have worked pro bono.

But putting all of that aside, the key takeaway from this morning’s developments is pretty straightforward: defending DOMA has become so politically controversial, even one of D.C.’s leading law firms no longer wanted anything to do with it.