BOSTON — A federal appeals court in Boston on Thursday that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to married same-sex couples, a groundbreaking ruling that all but guarantees the issue will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In its unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston agreed with a lower court judge who ruled in 2010 that DOMA is unconstitutional because it interferes with the right of a state to define marriage.
At issue is whether the federal government can deny tax, health and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry — DOMA, enacted in 1996, prevents any of the over 1,100 federal rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage from being afforded to legally married same-sex couples.
The ruling involves two closely-watched cases, in which U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro, ruling on two separate challenges to DOMA on July 8, 2010, held that the act is unconstitutional and forced the state of Massachusetts to discriminate against its own citizens.
In the first case, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, Tauro found 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.
In that suit, filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the Plaintiffs — seven same-sex couples married in Massachusetts, and three survivors of same-sex spouses, also married in Massachusetts — charged that they have been denied certain federal marriage-based benefits that are available to similarly-situated heterosexual couples, in violation of the equal protection principles embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto argued that DOMA constitutes a “classic equal protection” violation, by taking one class of married people in Massachusetts and dividing it into two — one class gets federal benefits, and the other does not.
In the companion ruling in the case of the Commonwealth v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, the judge held that the same section of DOMA violated the Tenth Amendment and fell outside Congress’ authority under the Spending Clause of the Constitution.
In today’s ruling, Appeals Court Judge Michael Boudin, an appointee by President George H.W. Bush, noted in the Court’s decision that DOMA cannot withstand legal scrutiny.
“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,” he wrote.
The 1st Circuit said its ruling wouldn’t be enforced until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the case, meaning that same-sex married couples will not be eligible to receive the economic benefits denied by DOMA until the high court rules.
“Today’s landmark ruling makes clear once again that DOMA is a discriminatory law for which there is no justification,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. “It is unconstitutional for the federal government to create a system of first- and second-class marriages, and it does harm to families in Massachusetts every day.”
Joe Solmonese, outgoing president of the Human Rights Campaign, called the ruling an historic victory for loving gay and lesbian couples and their children.
“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.
The U.S. House of Representatives’ Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), which is currently defending DOMA, is likely to appeal today’s decision, either to larger panel of the First Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Obama administration announced last year it believed the law to be unconstitutional, and said the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA in court.
Last week, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional to the extent that it limits same-sex spouses of state workers from obtaining the same insurance coverage available to heterosexual couples.
And in San Francisco, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White issued a similar ruling in February against DOMA in a lawsuit filed by Karen Golinski, a federal appeals court staff attorney who wants to enroll her wife in the court’s employee health plan.