February 22, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
Calif. federal court rules against DOMA

A federal district court in California has declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in a case involving a lesbian federal employee seeking benefits for her spouse.

In a decision made public on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled against DOMA in the case of Golinski v. United States on the basis that the anti-gay law “unconstitutionally discriminates against married same-sex couples.”

“In this matter, the Court finds that DOMA, as applied to Ms. Golinski, violates her right to equal protection of the law under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution by, without substantial justification or rational basis, refusing to recognize her lawful marriage to prevent provision of health insurance coverage to her spouse,” White writes.

As part of the decision, White issued a “permanent injunction” preventing the U.S. government from interfering with the enrollment of Golinski’s wife in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Tara Borelli, staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Western Regional Office in Los Angeles, praised the court for its decision.

“The court agreed with us that sexual orientation discrimination by the government should receive heightened scrutiny under the constitution,” Borelli said. “It then concluded that DOMA could not meet that standard, and that there was not even a rational justification to deny Karen Golinski the same spousal health care benefits that her heterosexual co-workers receive.”

Lambda, along with Morrison & Foerster LLP, filed the case in 2008 on behalf of Karen Golinski, who was denied spousal health benefits by her employer, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Golinski has been partners with Amy Cunninghis for more than 20 years, and the two were legally married in 2008 under California law before Proposition 8 took away marriage rights for gay couples in the state.

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski ruled that it violates the Ninth Circuit’s non-discrimination policies to deny Golinski the same benefits for her spouse that the spouses of straight court employees have. But the Office of Personnel Management maintained it couldn’t grant Golinski spousal benefits because of DOMA.

The case evolved into a lawsuit over DOMA. After the Obama administration declared DOMA unconstitutional in February 2011, the Justice Department filed a brief in the Golinksi case against the anti-gay law. In April, Lambda filed an amended complaint in the case directly challenging the constitutionality of DOMA.

But the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group also filed briefs in the case in defense of DOMA. The group took up defense of the law in the administration’s stead at the direction of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) after voting on a party-line basis to defend the statute.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who also represents San Francisco and Golinski in Congress, called the ruling “a victory for the liberty, civil rights, and equality of LGBT Americans and, indeed, all Americans.”

“By declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, we can right a wrong of our past; we can move closer to ending a fundamental unfairness in our nation; and we can look forward to the day when we discard this discriminatory law in the dustbin of history,” Pelosi said. “With this decision, our country has taken a step forward for marriage equality – a step toward a time when all of America’s families enjoy the blessings of equal protection under the law.”

Pelosi also took a dig at the BLAG for taking up defense of DOMA in the administration’s stead, saying the majority of Democrats don’t want to defend DOMA in court.

“In rejecting the arguments of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, the court’s ruling also reaffirmed a core belief of the majority of House Democrats: that the House is not united in this case; that the BLAG lawyers do not speak for Congress; and that BLAG’s intervention remains a waste of taxpayer resources,” Pelosi said. “The court made it clear that there is no legitimate federal interest in denying married gay and lesbian couples the legal security, rights, and responsibilities guaranteed to all married couples under state law.”

A Boehner didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on the ruling or whether BLAG would appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit within the 60 day deadline.

Tom Warnke, a Lambda spokesperson, said his organization expects BLAG to appeal the case. As for timing for when Golinski would be able to receive benefits, he said his organization hopes “to know more about the question regarding access to benefits soon.”

The ruling is the first court decision made on DOMA since the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend the law in court. A White House spokesperson didn’t respond to a request to comment on the ruling. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.

But White, who was appointed to the bench in 2002 by former President George W. Bush, isn’t the first judge to rule against DOMA. In July 2010, Judge Joseph Tauro of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts ruled in the cases of Gill v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services that DOMA is unconstitutional. Those cases are currently on appeal before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a statement, Golinksi thanked the court for ruling in her favor and against the Defense of Marriage Act.

“I am profoundly grateful for the thought and consideration that Judge White gave to my case,” Golinski said. “His decision acknowledges that DOMA violates the Constitution and that my marriage to Amy is equal to those marriages of my heterosexual colleagues. This decision is a huge step toward equality.”

Doug NeJaime, who’s gay and a law professor at Loyola Law School, said the decision is “very comprehensive” because it examines of the governmental interests of DOMA under both a heightened scrutiny and a lower rational basis standard of review.

“This is a smart course for the district court to take in looking down the road to potential Ninth Circuit review, especially in light of the rational-basis holding that the Ninth Circuit panel issued in [the Prop 8 case],” NeJaime said. “The heightened scrutiny portion of the decision, though, clearly evidences the impact of the Obama administration’s position on DOMA, in which Attorney General Holder set out the arguments for heightened scrutiny for sexual-orientation-based classifications.”

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

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