A Connecticut federal court has added yet another ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and determined the law is unconstitutional on the basis of two standards of review.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Bryant of the U.S. District Court of Connecticut granted summary judgment in the case of Pedersen et al v. Office of Personnel Management and ruled against DOMA, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, on the basis that it violates equal protection under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Among the reasons why Bryant, who was appointed in 2007 by former President George W. Bush, determined that DOMA is unconstitutional is the negative effect that it has on children reared by married same-sex couples.
“For example, Section 3 of DOMA deprives members of same-sex marriages of the right, under the FMLA, to take leave to care for a spouse with a serious health condition,” Bryant writes. “Children of same-sex families would undoubtedly suffer from their parents’ inability to rely on this federal marital benefit, as their household would be put under greater stress in attempting to cope with the serious illness of a parent.”
The lawsuit was filed by the New England-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Co-counsel on Pedersen are Jenner & Block LLP in D.C., Horton, Shields & Knox in Hartford, Conn., and Sullivan & Worcester LLP in Boston.
The 104-page ruling first lays out reasons why DOMA fails first on the heightened scrutiny standard of review, but also under the lower standard of rational basis review. Only in the case of Golinksi v. United States has a court before determined that DOMA is unconstitutional on both of these standards of review.
Doug NeJaime, who’s gay and a professor at Loyola Law School, said the application of both standards of review in the case is noteworthy, and added that Bryant isn’t the first judge to strike down DOMA in this manner.
“The striking thing is that the judge has applied the heightened scrutiny standard and determined that sexual orientation should get heightened scrutiny and does an analysis on why DOMA fails rational basis anyway,” NeJaime said.
The plaintiffs in the case are five couples and a widower from Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire who have been denied the federal benefits, including benefits afforded to the spouses of federal employees. The lead plaintiff is Joanne Pedersen, who retired from a civilian position within the Department of the Navy after 30 years and is seeking health benefits for her spouse, Ann Meitzen.
Pedersen said she’s “thrilled” the court ruled her marriage should be respected by the federal government just as it is in her home state of Connecticut, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2008.
“I loved working for the Navy for many years, and now that I am retired I now just want to care for my wife and make sure we can enjoy some happy and healthy years together,” Pedersen said. “DOMA has prevented us from doing that.”
Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s civil rights project director, said in a conference call with reporters that the ruling makes convincing arguments against DOMA on both heightened scrutiny and rational basis standards of review.
“Judge Bryant’s ruling is very clear: married people are married and should be treated as such by the federal government. There is no legitimate basis for DOMA’s broad disrespect of the marriages of same-sex couples,” Bonauto said in a statement. “We are very pleased that the court recognized that DOMA’s creation of second-class marriages harms our clients who simply seek the same opportunities to care and provide for each other and for their children that other families enjoy.”
Additionally, Bonauto said she expects the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to appeal the case to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which must happen within 60 days. BLAG, under the direction of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republicans, took up defense of DOMA after the Obama administration stopped defending DOMA in court last year.
A spokesperson for Boehner’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the Connecticut court ruling against DOMA.
Several courts at various levels have made rulings against DOMA. The tally now stands at five district courts, one appeals court and one bankruptcy court. A number of parties both for and against DOMA have asked the Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of DOMA, although no such request has been made in the Pedersen case.
The Pedersen case could be joined on appeal to the Second Circuit with Windsor v. United States, in which a New York federal district court ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional, because both cases have been filed in the Second Circuit. Windsor is among the cases through which both plaintiffs — and supporters of DOMA repeal like New York City Michael Bloomberg and New York City Speaker Christine Quinn — have asked the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA.
The decision comes on the same day the proponents of California’s Proposition 8 appealed a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court panel’s decision overturning the amendment to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s possible that the high court could weigh the constitutionality of California’s gay ban at the same time it determines the constitutionality of DOMA.