In a 3-0 decision, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management which found the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. The case is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, as a federal statue has now been found unconstitutional.
The First Circuit has issued a stay, so DOMA is still in effect. The court did not recognize a right to marry, as it was not part of this case, which was a classic "equal protection case" according to Mary Bonauto, of Gay & Lesbians Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). Bonauto said in a press call on Thursday that the court ruled on equal protections, which is "a basic promise of America."
DOMA denies federal benefits to gay married couples. DOMA was passed in 1996. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts since 2004. The appeals court agreed upheld a 2010 decision of a lower court judge who ruled that the law is unconstitutional.
“This ruling is a historic victory for loving gay and lesbian couples and their children,” said HRC President Joe Solmonese. “For the first time, a federal appeals court has recognized that our constitution will not tolerate a law that forces the federal government to deny lawfully-married same-sex couples equal treatment. The writing is clearly on the wall for the demise of this unjust and indefensible law that hurts real families.”
“We applaud GLAD, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the courageous plaintiffs for their incredible efforts on behalf of gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts and across the nation,” said Solmonese.
The decision reads: “To conclude, many Americans believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and most Americans live in states where that is the law today. One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage. Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress' denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest.”
Dean Hara’s case stayed
Office of Personnel Management ("OPM") had previously ruled that Hara was ineligible to receive an annuity both because he was not a spouse under DOMA and because the Congressman had not elected such coverage. A review board upheld the denial of coverage solely because of DOMA, finding the failure to elect coverage not to bar annuitant status. Hara sought further review in the Federal Circuit, and that case has been stayed.
Hara argues that the Federal Circuit has to recognize his annuitant status because the Board has waived or forfeited any objection based on the failure to elect spousal survivor coverage; but the Department of Justice does not concede the point, which the Federal Circuit presumably will resolve.
The judgment assumes that Supreme Court will review of DOMA, and Hara’s case will be determined then.
Federal Appeals Court Rules DOMA Section 3 Unconstitutional
Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled unanimously that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional with respect to claims brought by seven married same-sex couples and three widowers from Massachusetts. The ruling has been stayed pending a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress’ will, this statute fails that test,” the court stated in its opinion.
“This is a strong opinion that affirms that DOMA is an outlier for two reasons. First, because it targets a historically disadvantaged and unpopular group. Second, DOMA intrudes broadly into domestic relations, an area of traditional state regulation,” said Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s Civil Rights Project Director, who argued the case. “Congress does not get to put its ‘thumb on the scales,’ as the court put it, simply because it does not agree with Massachusetts’ decision to allow loving and committed same-sex couples to marry.”
Represented by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the plaintiffs in Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management have each been harmed because the federal government, under DOMA, has refused to recognize their marriages for all purposes, including Social Security protections, access to family health insurance policies, and joint income tax filings. On July 8, 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. The U.S. Department of Justice appealed the ruling, which resulted in today’s decision.
The next step most likely in the case is for the federal defendants and BLAG to decide whether they will seek review in the Supreme Court. That request should come within the next 90 days.
Congress passed DOMA in 1996. Section 3 of the law states that only a marriage between one man and one woman will be recognized for federal purposes. The Obama Administration called the law discriminatory, even while defending it in court.
GLAD filed the Gill case on the grounds that DOMA Section 3 violates the federal constitutional guarantee of equal protection as applied to federal income tax, Social Security, federal employees and retirees, and the issuance of passports. The passport issue was resolved in 2009 when the State Department changed its policy.
Details about the case, the plaintiffs, and the attorneys representing them can be found a thttp://www.glad.org/doma.
Read the Appeals Court ruling here.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders is New England’s leading legal organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity and expression.