Federal Court Finds Section 3 of Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional


[Comments for this post on “Alas, a Blog” are limited to those who agree that same-sex marriages should be legally recognized on an equal basis as opposite-sex marriages. Anyone may post comments at The Debate Annex, however.]

Earlier today, a federal court ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act — the part of DOMA that said the Federal government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, not even in states which do recognize same-sex marriage – was ruled unconstitutional by a Federal judge in Massachusetts. The ruling only applies in Massachusetts, apparently (I’m don’t understand why this doesn’t apply in other states that recognize same-sex marriages — any lawyers reading this know?), and will almost certainly be appealed by the Obama administration. Nonetheless, this is good news.

Poliglot reports:

U.S. District Court Judge Jospeh Tauro, appointed to the federal bench in 1972, ruled this afternoon in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act violates the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A companion decision in Massachusetts v. U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services also was issued, with Tauro finding that DOMA also violates the Tenth Amendment and the Spending Clause of the Constitution.

The Gill ruling: 2010-07-08-gill-district-court-decision.pdf

The Massachusetts ruling: 2010-07-08-massachusetts-district-court-decision.pdf

* * *

Section 3 of DOMA defines “marriage” and “spouse” at the federal level as constituting only opposite-sex couples. It 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.’.

The Gill case, which was filed first by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, is unique because it challenged not the right of same-sex couples to marry, but the discrimination faced by same-sex couples who were legally married in Massachusetts but are treated differently than opposite-sex married couples by the federal government. The case points to health and retirement benefits of federal employees and their same-sex spouses or, in one case, the widow of a former federal employee. It also challenges diffential tax treatment faced by same-sex couples.

Tauro wrote a very strong equal protection opinion, finding:

This court need not address these arguments [about whether strict scrutiny should apply in this case], however, because DOMA fails to pass  constitutional muster even under the highly deferential rational basis test. As set forth in detail  below, this court is convinced that “there exists no fairly conceivable set of facts that could  ground a rational relationship” between DOMA and a legitimate government objective. DOMA, therefore, violates core constitutional principles of equal protection.

The Massachusetts challenge, brought by state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), adresses specific problems faced by the state of Massachusetts because of the federal prohibition on recognition of the same-sex marriages legally entered into in the state. In Judge Tauro’s decision in the Massachusetts case, he found that — in addition to equal protection principles — DOMA violated the Tenth Amendment and the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In part, he writes:

That DOMA plainly intrudes on a core area of state sovereignty—the ability to define the marital status of its citizens—also convinces this court that the statute violates the Tenth  Amendment.

The decisions appear to be a broad validation of Massachusetts and GLAD’s arguments and are certain to set up a more difficult appeal than had Judge Tauro only found one ground to strike down Section 3.

In fact, Tauro’s parting words in Gill, set up just how difficult he believes that an appeal should be:

As irrational prejudice plainly never constitutes a legitimate government interest, this court must hold that Section 3 of DOMA as applied to Plaintiffs violates the equal protection principles embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Section 2, which purports to give states the authority to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally entered into in other states, is not at issue in either of the cases.

Will this ruling stand up if it’s eventually appealed to the Supreme Court? In the long run, that depends on what Justice Kennedy thinks.1

But I think this decision puts the folks who have been saying “let the states decide,” while really opposing marriage equality, in an interesting position. The ruling says that the Federal government has to respect state decisions on this — even if a state decides to recognize same-sex marriages. Now most of those folks will have to come up with some rationalization to explain why when they said they wanted the states to decide, they didn’t mean that they wanted the states to decide.

Mainly, though, this decision is important because – if it’s upheld – it brings same-sex couples in Massachusetts much closer to full legal equality. That’s something to get excited about.

UPDATE: Another quote from the rulings:

In the wake of DOMA, it is only sexual orientation that differentiates a married couple entitled to federal marriage-based benefits from one not so entitled. And this court can conceive of no way in which such a difference might be relevant to the provision of the benefits at issue. By premising eligibility for these benefits on marital status in the first instance, the federal government signals to this court that the relevant distinction to be drawn is between married individuals and unmarried individuals. To further divide the class of married individuals into those with spouses of the same sex and those with spouses of the opposite sex is to create a distinction without meaning. And where, as here, “there is no reason to believe that the disadvantaged class is different, in relevant respects” from a similarly situated class, this court may conclude that it is only irrational prejudice that motivates the challenged classification. As irrational prejudice plainly never constitutes a legitimate government interest, this court must hold that Section 3 of DOMA as applied to Plaintiffs violates the equal protection principles embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

And more (from Hunter of Justice)….

What remains, therefore, is the possibility that Congress sought to deny recogniton to same-sex marriages in order to make heterosexual marriage appear more valuable or deisrable. But to the extent that this was the goal, Congress has achieved it only by punishing same-sex couples who exercise their rights under state law. And this the Constitution does not permit. For if the constitutional conception of equal protection of the laws means anything, it must at the very least mean that the Constitutional will not abide such a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group…

…[W]hen the proffered rationales for a law are clearly and manifestly implausible, a reviewing court may infer that animus is the only explicable basis. [Because] animus alone cannot constitute a legitimate government interest, this court finds that DOMA lacks a rational basis to support it.


[Comments for this post on “Alas, a Blog” are limited to those who agree that same-sex marriages should be legally recognized on an equal basis as opposite-sex marriages. Anyone may post comments at The Debate Annex, however.]

  1. Or if Obama gets to replace one of the five most right-wing justices on the Supreme Court, I suppose. []
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7 Responses to Federal Court Finds Section 3 of Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional

  1. 1
    GallingGalla says:

    will almost certainly be appealed by the Obama administration

    Meaning…?

    Does Obama think that the ruling doesn’t go far enough, that is, that it should apply nationally and/or overturn more clauses of DOMA?

    Or does he think that the ruling goes too far, thus proving him to be as retrofuck as the right-wingers that he sought to distinguish himself from?

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    The Obama Justice Department will probably say that they have an obligation to defend all the laws passed by Congress in court, including those laws that they wish hadn’t been passed.

    What they really think in their heart of hearts, I cannot say.

  3. 3
    Emily says:

    I think the decision only applies in Mass because the US Dist Ct for Mass only has jurisdiction over Mass. Other district courts are not bound to follow the Mass Dist Ct precedent. If the First Circuit affirms the decision, then that decision would apply to all states in the First Circuit (I do state work, I can no longer name the states in the First Circuit; at least Mass and Maine and one of VT and NH; I think VT is Second Circuit but I’m not sure). The federal officials in other states will not honor the Mass decision because their local federal courts do not have to follow it and might make the opposite decision if presented with the issue.

  4. 4
    RonF says:

    I’d guess that will probably happen next is that a similar suit in a different Circuit will get decided the other way and then the Supreme Court will grant cert. and make a decision.

  5. 5
    Bonnie says:

    RonF:

    1. That’s not how it works. SCOTUS does not decide between 2 (or more) disparate cases in different circuits; it decides on 1 case where there is a justiciable federal constitutional question or similar issue within its purview.

    2. Unless something has changed in your outlook, I believe this:

    [Comments for this post on "Alas, a Blog" are limited to those who agree that same-sex marriages should be legally recognized on an equal basis as opposite-sex marriages. Anyone may post comments at The Debate Annex, however.]

    applies to you.

  6. 6
    David Schraub says:

    That actually raises an interesting interpretative question, which I hope Amp will answer: Are these threads reserved for commenters who believe in the stated prerequisites (here, marriage equality), or comments (that is, can a person who does not believe the prerequisite still participate so long as their comments do not themselves implicate any disagreement with that prerequisite)?

    As for the legal technicalities, I believe Emily is correct. And the Supreme Court is generally more likely to take a case when a circuit split has developed, though when a lower court has struck down a portion of federal law (particular one this high profile) it is less likely that the Court will deem it necessary to wait for one.

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    That actually raises an interesting interpretative question, which I hope Amp will answer: Are these threads reserved for commenters who believe in the stated prerequisites (here, marriage equality), or comments (that is, can a person who does not believe the prerequisite still participate so long as their comments do not themselves implicate any disagreement with that prerequisite)?

    Good question.

    It’s clear that, the way I worded it in the OP here, it’s reserved for commenters.

    However, Ron’s comment was really benign; it didn’t even imply anything troublesome. So in the future, maybe I should make the limitation one on comments. I like that, because it seems to focus more on the arguments people make than on the people.

    But I worry that could lead to increased rules-lawyering; one thing I don’t want to do is spend a lot of time discussing whether or not a particular comment broke the rules of a thread. It’s simpler to just have blanket bans.

    My tendency, therefore, is to avoid having a rule at all; instead, we’ll play it by ear. If a comment seems benign and harmless, I’ll probably let it pass. If I think that a commenter is in effect detracting from discussion here, however, I’ll ask them to take it to the Alas Debate Annex (TADA).