May 20, 2013
By Scottie Thomaston
On Friday, Judge Consuelo B. Marshall, a federal district court judge for the Central District of California, heard arguments in Cooper-Harris v. USA, a military servicemember’s challenge to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In February, the judge had denied attempts to halt the proceedings by the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, the Republican-led House legal group defending the law in court, and to dismiss the case entirely, a position taken by the Justice Department, who argued that federal district court was the wrong place to hear challenges related to military benefits. Since the judge ruled the case should continue, arguments were scheduled. The case is one of the few still going on while the Supreme Court deliberates over the issue of Section 3 of DOMA’s constitutionality in United States v. Windsor. Another challenge, related to DOMA’s effects on binational couples in the immigration context, had been put on hold in April.
In the Cooper-Harris case, which was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a written opinion is expected, since the judge did not issue one from the bench after the arguments. This hearing was on motions for summary judgment on the merits of the constitutionality of DOMA and the other military-related law at issue.
Cooper-Harris is a veteran who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the VA ruled that it was acquired likely as a result of her service. If she were in an opposite-sex marriage she would be entitled to seek spousal benefits, but she is in a legal same-sex marriage and Section 3 of DOMA bars the federal government from recognizing the marriage. Another federal statute related to military benefits is also challenged in the case: it defines marriage as opposite-sex only.
The SPLC issued a statement after the arguments:
A federal court in California today heard arguments from SPLC attorneys challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Title 38 – statutes that prevent the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from granting equal benefits to gay and lesbian veterans and their spouses.
The case, Tracey Cooper-Harris v. USA, is the only challenge to DOMA that is proceeding at the same time that the U.S. Supreme Court considers the statute’s constitutionality.
It will be the first case to decide whether married gay and lesbian veterans and their spouses should receive the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. The judge did not issue a ruling at today’s hearing.
“Today we asked the court to declare these laws unconstitutional so that the federal government can honor Tracey’s service and Maggie’s sacrifice by providing them the same benefits other married veterans and their spouses routinely receive,” said Caren Short, staff attorney for the SPLC. “Our nation has a proud history of honoring service members and their families for their sacrifices. All who have served honorably must be treated fairly by our government when their service is complete.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor is expected at the end of June, so it’s possible that Cooper-Harris could be decided, if only in district court, before the Supreme Court says anything about the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA.