NEW YORK — U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones in Manhattan added herself to a growing list of federal judges across the nation on Wednesday by ruling that a key component of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unfairly discriminates against married same-sex couples by prohibiting them access to federal benefits available to married heterosexual couples.
Jones said DOMA’s efforts to define marriage “intrude upon the states’ business of regulating domestic relations,” and added that “incursion skirts important principles of federalism and therefore cannot be legitimate, in this court’s view.”
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Jones said such a sweeping review interferes with a system of government that places matters at the core of the domestic relations law exclusively within the province of the states.
The ruling came in a case of Windsor v. U.S., a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Edith Windsor, a woman whose spouse died in 2009, two years after they married each other in Canada.
Windsor brought the lawsuit after her late spouse, Thea Spyer, passed her estate to Windsor.
Because of the federal law, Windsor did not qualify for the unlimited marital deduction and was required to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax on Spyer’s estate. Windsor sued the government in November 2010.
As part of her ruling, Jones ordered the government to pay Windsor the money she had paid in estate tax.
LGBT advocacy groups praised Jones’ ruling.
Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese released the following statement in response to the decision:
“The dominoes continue to fall on DOMA with yet another federal court rightly calling it unconstitutional. All loving and committed married couples should be recognized by the federal government yet we continue to see the terrible pain DOMA inflicts on real families. The real question is when Speaker Boehner will see the writing on the wall and stop wasting taxpayer dollars defending this outrageous law and instead work to repeal it. Paul Clement’s record of zero for four speaks for itself.
“We applaud the ACLU and Edie Windsor, as well as the attorneys at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, for their incredible efforts on behalf of gay and lesbian couples across the nation and are confident that one day soon families will no longer have to live under the burden of this onerous law.”
The American Civil Liberties Union included comments from Windsor in its release.
“It’s thrilling to have a court finally recognize how unfair it is for the government to have treated us as though we were strangers,” Windsor said of her 44-year relationship with Spyer, in a statement issued by the ACLU.
James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, said the ruling “adds to what has become an avalanche of decisions that DOMA can’t survive even the lowest level of scrutiny by the courts.”
The ruling came just days after a federal appeals court in Boston found the law’s denial of federal benefits to same sex-couples unconstitutional.
Currently, six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. This year, legislatures in Maryland and Washington State approved marriage equality laws, but they are not yet in effect and are likely to be ballot initiatives in November.
Under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, even lawfully-married couples cannot be recognized by the federal government, and as a result are denied access to more than 1,100 rights, benefits and responsibilities under federal law, including Social Security survivor benefits, federal employee health benefits for spouses, protections against spouses losing their homes in cases of severe medical emergencies, the right to sponsor a foreign born partner for immigration, the guarantee of family and medical leave and the ability to file joint tax returns.
On May 24, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., ruled that a provision of 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 last week, a federal appeals court 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 — a groundbreaking ruling that all but guarantees the issue will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.