As Director, I recognize that one of the most important ways in which
OGE can serve the executive branch ethics community is by providing timely and
accurate advice on emerging issues affecting the ethics program. Earlier this
year, OGE had an opportunity to do just that when the Supreme Court issued its
decision in the landmark case of United
States v. Windsor.
decision struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as
unconstitutional. Section 3 of DOMA had defined the terms “marriage” and “spouse”
as being inapplicable, for purposes of federal laws, to same-sex spouses.
Significantly, these terms appeared in more than 1,000 federal laws, including
the federal ethics laws, and section 3 of DOMA served to exclude individuals in
same-sex marriages from the coverage of those laws. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision,
however, the federal ethics rules began applying to employees in same-sex
marriages in the same way that they applied to all other married employees,
starting on August 19, 2013.
This change imposed new ethical
responsibilities on federal employees in same-sex marriages because they would
no longer be excluded from the coverage of ethics rules using the term
“marriage” or “spouse” or, by implication, from the coverage of ethics rules
using the term “relative.” Among other things, this means that the financial
interests of their same-sex spouses are now treated as their own financial
interests for purposes of the criminal conflicts of interest laws. For example,
a federal procurement official is now prohibited from awarding a contract to a
company in which her same-sex spouse holds stock. In addition, this means that
employees who are required to file financial disclosure reports must now
include their same-sex spouses’ financial information in their financial
Following the Supreme Court’s issuance of the Windsor decision, OGE worked closely with the Justice Department to develop guidance explaining the effect of that decision. The guidance includes suggested language for federal agencies to use when communicating directly with their
employees about the new reach of the federal ethics rules. After clearing both
the guidance and the suggested language with the Justice Department, OGE acted
quickly to distribute them to ethics offices in every executive branch agency.
As with the Windsor decision, OGE works
diligently to keep federal agencies up to date on developments affecting the
ethics program. Our goal is to ensure that all federal employees know how to
comply with the government’s ethics rules and are able to avoid inadvertent
violations. In the days ahead, OGE will continue to monitor emerging issues,
and we will be sure to provide timely guidance that will help keep affected
employees on the right side of the ethics rules.