July 9, 2010
by Brian Leubitz
If you’ve been busy waiting for the Prop 8 ruling you may not have been expecting the news yesterday that Section 3 of the so-called “Defense of Marriage” Act was ruled unconstitutional. Not that it’s likely amongst the Trial Trackers here, but the decision definitely took me by surprise yesterday. But it happened, and you have, at least in part, Martha Coakley to thank for it. But, this decision is real, and powerful:
In the wake of DOMA, it is only sexual orientation that differentiates a married couple entitled to federal marriage-based benefits from one not so entitled. And this court can conceive of no way in which such a difference might be relevant to the provision of the benefits at issue. By premising eligibility for these benefits on marital status in the first instance, the federal government signals to this court that the relevant distinction to be drawn is between married individuals and unmarried individuals. To further divide the class of married individuals into those with spouses of the same sex and those with spouses of the opposite sex is to create a distinction without meaning. And where, as here, “there is no reason to believe that the disadvantaged class is different, in relevant respects” from a similarly situated class, this court may conclude that it is only irrational prejudice that motivates the challenged classification. 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.
This was actually two consolidates cases, the first case being brought by ten married couples Gill v OPM – decision here, the other being the Massachusetts case (decision here). In the Mass case, the judge ruled that DOMA violated the 10th Amendment. Yup, the one about the states having power over issues not delegated to the federal government. It’s not used much, although the right wing is trying to go all anti-Obama with it these days.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of issues for Californians here. First, there are currently about 18-20 thousand same-sex married couples in the state. Give or take for folks who married in other states before moving here pre-2008 and for those relationships that have ended since then. So, how does this ruling affect us here?
Well, unfortunately, this federal court decision really doesn’t affect us at all. In theory, the ruling only covers Massachusetts for the time being. The case was brought on behalf of the state, and unless and until it moves up through the 1st Circuit and possibly to the Supreme Court, the case only has persuasive precedential value. For now, DOMA is still valid in California.
That being said, there are still many ways to challenge DOMA, and this is a big first hurdle of getting a federal judge to call it for what it is: clearly unconstitutional. We should see additional lawsuits challenging DOMA from a variety of legal fronts over the coming months and years.
Of course, that Prop 8 decision will also play a major role in all this. The end game is, of course, for universal marriage equality, but the legal doors on the way there are slowly and steadily opening.
But this flows both ways. While these twin decisions are not binding on Judge Walker in any way, they can serve as helpful points of logic for his decision. While much of this does not apply to the Prop 8 case (such as the tenth amendment claims in the Mass. case), but the equal protection logic could put down some stepping stones for Judge Walker.
I’d also recommend cruising on over to the Rachel Maddow Show’s website for an interview with Martha Coakley about the decision as well as an interview with Tobias Wolff, President Obama’s campaign advisor for LGBT issues<a