Another federal court has ruled against Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in a California case challenging the constitutionality of the law as well as a portion of the federal tax code.
On Thursday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California declared the laws unconstitutional because they preclude plaintiffs from allowing their partners — whether in a union of marriage or a domestic partnership — from participating in a long-term care insurance program maintained by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS. The decision was signed by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken.
“The Court finds that § 3 of the DOMA violates the equal protection rights of Plaintiff same-sex spouses, and subparagraph (C) of § 7702B(f) violates the equal protection rights of Plaintiff registered domestic partners,” Wilken writes. “Therefore, both provisions are constitutionally invalid to the extent that they exclude Plaintiff same-sex spouses and registered domestic partners from enrollment in the CalPERS long-term care plan.”
The class-action lawsuit, known as Dragovich v. Department of the Treasury, was filed against both federal and state defendants because they precluded California public employees from taking part in CALPERS. The San Francisco-based Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center filed the case along with Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason LLP.
The decision by Wilken, who was appointed in 1993 by former President Clinton, enjoins both federal and state officials from blocking these workers from participating in these programs. However, a stay could be granted if an appeal is filed.
DOMA, a 1996 law that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage, applies to CalPERS because the law regulates state-sponsored long-term care plans.
But Title 26 U.S.C. § 7702B(f), also enacted in 1996 as part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, was also struck down because it has language excluding same-sex partners from the program. That portion of the law aims to provide favorable federal tax treatment to participants in state-maintained long-term care insurance plans for state employees like CalPERS.
Michael Dragovich, the lead plaintiff in the case and a nurse specializing in liver transplants at the University of California, San Francisco, praised the decision for allowing him and his partner to participate fully in CalPERS, which he joined as a state employee in 1997.
“I’ve been in a committed relationship with my partner for more than 30 years,” Dragovich said. “I am so pleased that our relationship will now be treated equally to the committed relationships of my heterosexual co-workers.”
Elizabeth Kristen, senior staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center and director of its gender equity program, said the decision upholds fairness under the law.
“Lesbian and gay couples are entitled to fair and equal treatment from the federal government,” Kristen said. “Judge Wilken’s ruling ensures that both same-sex spouses and registered domestic partners will be treated fairly with respect to the CalPERS long term care insurance program.”
In the determination that DOMA is unconstitutional, Wilkens brings up examples of statements made by members of Congress in 1996 suggesting an anti-gay animus, including an attempt to overturn to defund D.C.’s domestic partnership law in the early 1990s.
“Congress discussed registered domestic partnership laws prior to and during 1996, when the statutes challenged here were passed,” Wilken writes. “These discussions occurred after the District of Columbia passed, in April 1992, the Health Care Benefits Expansion Act, which established a domestic partnership registry in that jurisdiction. Congress reacted to the new law by barring any local or federal funding to implement, enforce or administer the registry.”
Douglas Nejaime, who’s gay and a law professor at Loyola University, said the decision is noteworthy because it strikes down both DOMA and separately finds excluding California registered domestic partners under the long-term care insurance regulations violates constitutional equal protection principles.
“The other interesting thing here is that the case implicates the relationship between state programs and federal regulation in a way that will continue to arise and produce issues not simply regarding marriage recognition for same-sex couples but recognition of non-marital same-sex relationships that are treated as ‘spousal’ relationships under state law,” NeJaime said.
According to the decision, plaintiffs had sought summary judgment in the case to obtain immediate relief. State defendants and lawyers for attorneys working for the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group under U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had opposed this motion. Nonetheless, the court denied these requests and granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs.
Wilken’s decision marks the fourth time a federal court has ruled against DOMA. The first time was in 2009 when U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro in Masschusetts ruled against DOMA in two separate cases: Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services. Those case are now pending before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals.
The third time took place in February. 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. The case is before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and oral arguments are scheduled for September.
But NeJaime said this case is unlike the Golinski case because of the standard of review that Wilken exercised. In the Golinksi case, White conducted both a heightened scrutiny and rational basis analysis review. In the Dragovich case, Wilken finds that he’s constrained under Ninth Circuit precedent and thus applies only rational basis review, but still determines DOMA fails under this more deferential standard.
The decision also marks the first time that a court has made a decision on DOMA following President Obama’s announcement that he support same-sex marriage, although no reference to Obama’s words appears in the ruling.