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Federal court strikes down law barring veterans in same-sex marriages from receiving spousal benefits

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In a pair of decisions filed yesterday, federal district court judge Consuelo B. Marshall ruled in Cooper-Harris v. USA that the district court has authority to hear a constitutional challenge to statutes defining marriage as opposite-sex only for purposes of military benefits, and that sections of the statute, Title 38, are unconstitutional under equal protection principles. First, the Justice Department, in its motion to dismiss, had argued that the district court is not the proper place to hear the challenge, under the Veterans Judicial Review Act. The court disagreed:

The Court finds that VJRA does not bar Plaintiffs’ equal protection challenge. Reviewing Plaintiffs’ complaint “does not require us to review “decisions” affecting the provision of benefits to any individual claimants.”[…]Plaintiffs do not ask for an award of any benefits, but declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and any relief the Court deems appropriate. Compl. They are only asking the Court to determine the constitutionality of DOMA and Title 38.

The court also ruled the parties have standing to bring the suit.

On the merits, in a terse opinion, the judge held that because the level of judicial scrutiny to be applied to equal protection cases dealing with sexual orientation “remains unsettled” in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, rational basis applies, and the statute is unconstitutional under that standard.

Title 38 was originally created in the wake of Frontiero v. Richardson to promote gender equality among military servicemembers, but the district court pointed out that “the exclusion of spouses in same-sex marriages from veterans’ benefits is not rationally related to the goal of gender equality.” The decision also holds that the “denial of benefits” to these spouses is not rationally related to “ensuring that servicemembers perform to their “maximum potential,”” or other purposes, “including readiness, recruiting, cohesion, and retention.” Lastly, the statute is “not rationally related to the military’s commitment to caring for and providing for veteran families.”

Because of the lack of even a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest, the statutory scheme is unconstitutional. Since the law was challenged on its face instead of ‘as applied’ that would seem to suggest the federal government is barred from applying it at all. However, the opinion itself says:

The Court permanently enjoins Defendants from relying on 38 U.S.C. §§ 101(3), (31) or Section 3 of 1 U.S.C. § 7 to deny recognition of Plaintiffs’ marriage recognized by the state of California.

The Justice Department refused to defend the statute in court and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), the House Republican-led group who stepped in to defend Section 3 of DOMA, withdrew its defense of DOMA Section 3 and these military benefits provisions.

This week, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki sent a letter to legislators explaining that veterans’ benefits for legally married same-sex couples would still be denied, in part because no court had ruled the statute unconstitutional. At the same time, the Justice Department was arguing in most military benefits cases that the federal district courts had no jurisdiction to hear the challenges, though they were not providing a defense of Title 38 itself.

In terms of the challenges going forward, the situation is unclear. This ruling is, of course, not binding on other judges at this point. However it can be cited, and it makes an argument against the Justice Department’s position that many of these challenges are in the wrong courts. But the statutes have no defense, and it doesn’t seem likely to face an appeal. Even on the jurisdictional issue, the district court opinion points to several Ninth Circuit precedents addressing the VJRA’s purpose and reach, and those seem to be clear enough. But other district courts may also decide that they do have jurisdiction to hear challenges, and they may enjoin the government from applying the law in those cases as well. Secretary Shinseki’s letter pointed to the fact that “no court” had yet ruled these provisions unconstitutional, but it’s unclear if the government would allow a district court’s injunction to bind the entire nation.

If the Department of Veterans’ Affairs continues to deny benefits to same-sex spouses of military veterans, there ls a bill pending in Congress that may provide relief, the Charlie Morgan Spouses Equal Treatment Act.

Thanks to Kathleen Perrin for these filings

Ruling on DOJ motion to dismiss:

2:12-cv-00887 #141 by EqualityCaseFiles

Ruling on plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment:

2:12-cv-00887 #140 by EqualityCaseFiles

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