Federal Judge Rules Part of DOMA Unconstitutional
In an enormous victory for same-sex marriage, a federal judge in Boston today (Thursday July 8), ruled, in two separate cases, that a critical part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
In one challenge brought by the state of Massachusetts, Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that Congress violated the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it passed DOMA and took from the states decisions concerning which couples can be considered married. In the other, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, he ruled DOMA violates the equal protection principles embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
In Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Health and Human Services, Tauro considered whether the federal law’s definition of marriage—one man and one woman—violates state sovereignty by treating some couples with Massachusetts’ marriage licenses differently than others. In Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a gay legal group, asked Tauro to consider whether DOMA violates the right of eight same-sex couples to equal protection of the law. Both cases were argued, separately, in May, and the decision released today is a relatively quick turnaround, given that some judges take almost a year to decide cases.
GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto told Tauro that DOMA constitutes a “classic equal protection” violation, by taking one class of married people in Massachusetts and dividing it into two. One class, she noted, gets federal benefits, the other does not. Just as the federal government cannot take the word “person” and say it means only Caucasians or only women, said Bonauto, it should not be able to take the word “marriage” and say it means only heterosexual couples. Bonauto said the government has no reason to withhold the more than 1,000 federal benefits of marriage from same-sex couples, and noted that a House Judiciary Committee report “explicitly stated the purpose of DOMA was to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.”
Maura T. Healey, chief of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division, told Judge Tauro that Section 3 of DOMA—the section that limits the definition of marriage for federal benefits to straight couples—violates the state’s right under the federal constitution to sovereign authority to define and regulate the marital status of its residents. Healey called DOMA an “animus-based national marriage law” that intrudes on core state authority and “forces the state to discriminate against its own citizens.”
Christopher Hall, representing HHS, said Congress should be able to control the meaning of terms, such as “marriage,” used in its own statutes, and should be able to control how federal money is allocated for federal benefits provided to persons based on their marital status. Tauro essentially replied that the government’s power is not unlimited.
Both Bonauto at GLAD and Healey at the Attorney General’s office urged Tauro to apply heightened scrutiny in considering whether the federal government had any legitimate need for DOMA. Heightened scrutiny requires the government to come up with a fairly significant reason for treating gay couples differently under the law. In both cases, however, the judge said that DOMA failed to meet even the most simple judicial review, rational basis—in other words, there was no justifiable reason to the federal government to treat same-sex couples differently.
Both lawsuits are very precise legal attacks against DOMA—targeting just Section 3—and most legal observers believe both cases will eventually be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for resolution. The only other marriage case right now that has that same potential is the Proposition 8 marriage case in a federal district court in San Francisco. Judge Vaughn Walker heard closing arguments in that case in June and has not yet issued his decision. The next step for all three cases is the U.S. Court of Appeals.