Federal Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional

In affirming the lower courts decision, a Federal Circuit Court has ruled that Section 3 of Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines “marriage” as a legal union between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional. In the case of Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Servs., seven same-sex couples who were legally married in Massachusetts, along with three surviving spouses of similar marriages (collectively Plaintiffs), sued the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, seeking to enjoin enforcement of the DOMA by federal agencies and officials. Plaintiffs claimed that Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutionally deprived them of federal benefits available to opposite-sex married couples, such as Social Security survivor benefits, medical health coverage, and filing joint income tax returns. In a companion case, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sought an injunction, claiming that Section 3 could threaten its right to receive federal funding for Medicaid and veterans programs because DHHS is permitted to withhold federal funds from noncomplying states and the Commonwealth is potentially out of compliance because same-sex couples can legally marry in Massachusetts.

On July 8, 2010, U.S. District Court found that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. At the same time, in the companion case, the District Court found that Section 3 violates both the Tenth Amendment and the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The District Court enjoined federal officials and agencies from enforcing Section 3, but stayed its order pending appeals to the Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) first filed a brief defending DOMA against all constitutional claims, but later filed a revised brief, contending that the appropriate standard for evaluating Equal Protection claims is “heightened scrutiny” and that DOMA failed to meet that standard. However, the DOJ still opposed the Spending Clause and Tenth Amendment claims.

Now, the Federal Circuit Court has affirmed the District Courts decision. The Circuit Court has ruled that (1) the Equal Protection claims in this case must be evaluated through intensified scrutiny of purported justifications, and federal governmental interests must be shown with special clarity; (2) more careful assessment is required where adversely affected group has historically suffered discrimination, as gays and lesbians have; (3) neither the Tenth Amendment nor the Spending Clause invalidates DOMA (no commandeering or dictating of state government internal operations), but DOMA impliedly attempts to influence state decisions regarding marriage laws and intrudes into area of traditional state regulation; (4) DOMA lacks express findings usually included in federal statutes, but House Committee report states that DOMA will advance governmental interest in (a) defending and nurturing traditional heterosexual marriage, (b) defending traditional notions of morality, (c) protecting state sovereignty and democratic self-governance, and (d) preserving scarce government resources; and (5) DOMA appears not to preserve scarce government resources, is a poor remedy for defending and nurturing traditional marriage, cannot be justified solely on moral grounds, and does not support protection of state sovereignty and democratic self-governance. Therefore, the Circuit Court concluded that the rationales offered do not provide adequate support for Section 3 of DOMA; thus, Section 3 is unconstitutional. Circuit Court affirmed Dist Ct, but stays its ruling pending the expected filing of petition for certiorari in U.S. Supreme Court.

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