July 15, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Court strikes down DOMA in historic ruling

Melba Abreu & Beatrice Hernandez are plaintiffs in the case Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management et al. (Photo courtesy GLAD)

A federal court in Massachusetts has issued two decisions finding that part of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional in response to legal challenges against the statute.

Judge Joseph Tauro of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts ruled July 8 in the case of Gill v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management that DOMA violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In his decision, Tauro writes that “only sexual orientation” differentiates married couples that can receive federal benefits and those who cannot.

“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,” he writes.

In a separate decision in the case of Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services, Tauro concludes that regulating marriage is a state’s right under the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment. He says that DOMA violates this right for Massachusetts.

“The federal government, by enacting and enforcing DOMA, plainly encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state, and, in doing so, offends the Tenth Amendment,” Tauro writes. “For that reason, the statute is invalid.”

In a statement, Freedom to Marry Executive Director Evan Wolfson praised the court for its decision in the Gill case.

“Today’s ruling affirms what we have long known: federal discrimination enacted under DOMA is unconstitutional,” he said. “The decision will be appealed and litigation will continue. But what we witnessed in the courtroom cannot be erased: federal marriage discrimination harms committed same-sex couples and their families for no good reason.”

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes marriage rights for LGBT couples, criticized the decisions and Tauro’s willingness to overturn DOMA.

“With only Obama to defend DOMA, this federal judge has taken the extraordinary step of overturning a law passed by huge bipartisan majorities and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996,” Brown said. “A single federal judge in Boston has no moral right to decide the definition of marriage for the people of the United States.”

Brown attributed the rulings to the failure of U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to defend DOMA adequately. Her nomination to become an associate justice for the U.S. Supreme Court is pending before the U.S. Senate.

“Under the guidance of Elena Kagan’s brief that she filed when she was solicitor general, Obama’s Justice Department deliberately sabotaged this case,” Brown said.

The rulings came in response to separate legal challenges filed last year by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

During a conference call Thursday, Coakley said the court rulings were “a landmark decision” and a “very important step toward achieving equality for all married couples, particularly here in Massachusetts.”

“We believe that today is a victory for civil rights in Massachusetts and I hope progress toward the understanding of all as to why marriage equality is a civil rights issue,” she said.

Janson Wu, staff attorney for GLAD, said, “it’s almost certain” that both decisions will be stayed upon appeal to a higher court and that access to federal benefits for married same-sex couples right now is “almost somewhat an irrelevant point.”

“I think it’s safe to say that it’s likely that the judgment for both cases will not go into effect while the case is being appealed,” Wu said.

Both lawsuits in which the court reached decisions were aimed at Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

But Doug NeJaime, a gay law professor at Loyola Law School, said the result of the Gill case doesn’t necessarily mean an end to Section 3 of DOMA, but only the programs to which the plaintiff couples in the case were denied access.

“This decision itself, while it puts pressure on Congress to repeal DOMA and provide case law in which to have broader challenges, it’s just sort of an initial chipping away at Section 3,” he said.

Nan Hunter, a lesbian law professor at Georgetown University, said her understanding of the Gill lawsuit is that it “only deals with the particular programs that these plaintiffs were challenging.”

“However, if they sustain this victory on appeal, there won’t be anything left of Section 3 of DOMA,” she said. “It won’t make sense for a court to uphold it as to any other provisions of federal law.”

NeJaime said the Gill opinion could set precedent that would influence marriage lawsuits elsewhere. In particular, NeJaime noted a passage in which Tauro discusses the relationship between procreation and marriage.

“This court can readily dispose of the notion that denying federal recognition to same-sex marriages might encourage responsible procreation, because the government concedes that this objective bears no rational relationship to the operation of DOMA,” Tauro writes.

The judge adds “a consensus” has emerged among the medical and psychological communities that children raised by LGBT people “are just as likely to be well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexual parents.”

NeJaime said Tauro’s decision to make this point as part of his ruling is “very relevant to broader analysis of the right to marry for same-sex couples.”

“I think he’s going down that path in a way that other courts might look to it,” he said.

NeJaime said this reasoning could be applied in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, a legal challenge against the ban on same-sex marriage in California that is pending before Judge Vaughn Walker in district court.

Although social conservative groups defending the ban in this case have used the argument that marriage is for procreation, NeJaime said the Gill decision can provide a reference to counter that rationale.

“I think Judge Walker can look to not only the federal government’s rejection of those rationales in the DOMA cases, but this judge’s reasoning about why that’s not a good interest anyway,” NeJaime said.

Appeals likely for lawsuits

According to GLAD, the next step in the Gill case is for the federal government to decide whether it will appeal to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision is expected within the next 60 days.

Tracy Schamler, a spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department, said last week the Obama administration was still “reviewing the decision.” Many observers expect the rulings to be appealed.

Gary Buseck, legal director for GLAD, said he believed the Justice Department would have to appeal the decisions.

“Everyone tells us — and it seems to be true — that the executive branch has a responsibility to defend acts of Congress and it would be very difficult for them not to take an appeal of this,” he said. “I suppose anything is technically possible, but I think it would be unusual for them — highly unusual — for them not to appeal this decision from the judge.”

NeJaime said he also believed the Justice Department would appeal the decisions, although he didn’t believe the administration is required to do so.

“It’s certainly conventional to see a case like this [go] up the appeals chain, but there’s instances in which the government loses at the district court level and then there’s a policy change, so there’s nothing that forecloses that,” he said.

Still, Buseck said having a win at a lower court is helpful going into appeal and that Tauro wrote a “strong opinion” that will be helpful if the case goes to a higher court.

“We’ve got a platform, which is about the best possible platform we can have going to the First Circuit,” Buseck said.

NeJaime said the plaintiffs would have an added edge upon appeal with the Gill case because Tauro didn’t apply heightened scrutiny or consider LGBT people a suspect class in his opinion.

“If you went down the path of there’s a fundamental right because of the family relationship or sexual orientation as a suspect class, it would provide a sort of threshold question for both the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court to really say, ‘Oh, he got it wrong,’ and then the rest of the analysis then sort of goes out the window,” NeJaime said.

Hunter said she believed having the case be appealed and succeed at a higher court would be beneficial in the effort to overturn DOMA.

“To have DOMA struck down by just one judge’s opinion — it’s not a very strong basis for getting rid of the statute,” she said. “So personally — and this is probably a reflection that I’m pretty optimistic about the overcome of repeal — I think we may better off, frankly, if they do appeal it and it goes to the U.S. Court of Appeals and wins in the Court of Appeals.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

4 Comments
  • Judge Tauro is wrong when he says that “only sexual orientation” differentiates married couples that can receive federal benefits and those who cannot.

    Let’s not forget that GENDER also differentiates married couples that can receive federal benefits and those who cannot.

    The Defense of Marriage Act (as well as all 31 state laws that bar gay and lesbian couples from marrying) not only violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, it also clashes with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits gender-based discrimination.

    Forget sexual orientation. DOMA clearly discriminates against couples who are of the same gender. Supporters of same-gender marriage should have argued all along that DOMA and similar laws impose illegal gender-based discrimination.

    Of course, had the Equal Rights Amendment been ratified in the 1970s, the question of same-gender marriage would have been rendered moot. We seem to have forgotten that conservative gadfly Phyllis Schafly’s anti-ERA campaign had more to do with fear of legalized same-gender marriage than anything else she argued publicly. Homophobia, not fear of feminism, is what really killed the ERA.

  • Under no circumstances should the Obama Administration start an appeal of the overturning of DOMA. I am tired of hearing them say they have the obligation to defend these injustices, and now that they did this in the Federal District Court, they can honestly say they did their job and move on. Obama’s justice department doesn’t need to keep defending it in the Appeals Court or God forbid the Supreme Court, which would probably rule the opposite way in favor of inequality considering the biased antigay conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Obama must stop defending DOMA now and allow the district court’s ruling to stand.

  • Tim… I’m in total agreement with you, but I just don’t see that happeneing. The Justic Department must appeal to protect the rights of Congress. Out of principal, they must appeal the District Court’s ruling. It saddens me that in 2010 we’re still talking about this.

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