Another US District Court finds no rational basis for DOMA treatment of same sex couples

by Linda Beale

Another US District Court finds no rational basis for DOMA treatment of same sex couples

In a case that will add weight to the likelihood that the Supreme Court will finally take a case to decide the constitutionality of the so-called “defense of marriage act” (DOMA), the U.S. district court for Northern California District concluded on May 24th that sections of DOMA and the internal revenue code that incorporate it (here section7702B(f), which excludes participants in same sex relationships from long-term care insurance coverage) violate the equal protection rights of same-sex couples and registered domestic partners and are therefore constitutionally invalid to the extent they exclude such state employees from enrollment in California’s insurance program. Dragovich v. United States, No. 4P10-cv-01565-CW (N.C. Cal 2012).

Because the Obama administration announced in 2011 that it had concluded that DOMA was unconstitutional and therefore it would no longer defend DOMA in court, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the United States House of Representatives (BLAG) argued in defense of the statute.

The judge concluded that BLAG failed to establish a rational relation of Section 3 of DOMA to a legitimate government interest and granted summary judgement regarding the plaintiffs’ claim for access to CalPERS long-term care insurance program.

Other cases are also wending their way up the appeals ladder.  (below the fold)

In California, a Ninth Circuit staff attorney employee proceeding for same-sex couple benefit coverage was decided in her favor by Chief Judge Kozcinski but the federal Office of Personnel Management ordered the insurer not to cover her. She took her case to court, winning in the US district court for Northern California in a decision by Judge Jeffrey White. The defendants appealed to the Ninth Circuit . See, e.g., Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management (N.D. Cal.)(order available on Lambda Legal); Karen Golinski Wins Health Care Benefits as Court Declares Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional, HuffingtonPost (Feb. 2012); the amicus brief by Eagle Forum opposing an initial en banc hearing (Ninth Circuit, Apr. 30, 2012).

In Boston, the First Circuit in April heard an appeal from two cases in which DOMA was also ruled unconstitutional by district court Judge Tauro. See Appeals Court Hears Arguments on Gay Marriage Law, New York Times (April 4, 2012). In one case, the judge concluded that DOMA compels states to discriminate–by denying funding if they don’t– against same sex couples who are permitted to marry under state law but whose marriage is not recognized for federal law purposes because of DOMA. The other case focussed on the issue of federal discrimination in the provision of federal benefits like Social Security, in contravention of the equal protection clause.

The fate of DOMA is likely ultimately to rest on the Supreme Court Justices and possibly on whether the Court applies “rational basis” or “heightened scrutiny” as the standard for consideration. Gender discrimination has ordinarily been thought to require more than a mere “rational basis” justification. Even the lower rational basis standard, however, should not be satisfied by DOMA: it is an arbitrary law put in place with the sole purpose of ensuring that the benefits of federal laws could not apply to one particular group of Americans–those who have formed same-sex couples. A purpose of discriminating among individuals based solely on their sexual orientation does not appear to be any kind of rational basis for a law.

I have always thought DOMA represented a regressive moment of legislative history and that it should be seen as violating the equal protection guarantee. Marriage is something clearly defined by law and not something inherently defined by some external authority. Hence, for a state to discriminate against its own citizens in denying them the benefits that accompany the legally sanctioned union is problematic. The arguments of the religious right to the contrary are unfounded–the state can sanction marriage between any two individuals and the churches can dictate whatever additional limitations they choose as necessary to the church’s religious doctrine. The rights of same sex couples to marry does nothing to hurt the rights of opposite sex couples or their marriages. People can avoid a church if they don’t agree with its doctrine, but they can’t so easily (in many cases not at all) avoid their state or nation. I hope that the Supreme Court, when it eventually takes one or another of these cases, reaches the correct decision to eliminate this example of blatant invidious discrimination .

crossposted with ataxingmatter