Constitutional Law

1st Circuit Strikes Down Section of DOMA Law Denying Federal Benefits to Gay Couples

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A federal appeals court has struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act on equal protection and federalism grounds.

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law discriminates against married gay couples who are denied federal benefits, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times report. The case is “all but certain to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court,” AP says.

The appeals court said rationales offered in support of the federal benefit ban are not sufficient under a standard of “closer than usual review.” The court ruled in challenges to the law filed by the state of Massachusetts, and by a group of same-sex couples and surviving spouses of such couples who were married in the state.

“Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress’ denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest,” the opinion (PDF) said.

The court ruled in a challenge to Section 3 of the law that defines marriages, for federal purposes, as a legal union between one man and one woman. Under the law, same-sex married couples are not entitled to the same federal economic benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. The benefits include the right to file joint federal tax returns, to receive Social Security survivor benefits after the death of a spouse, and to access health insurance benefits of spouses who work for the federal government.

The unanimous ruling doesn’t reach a second portion of the law that says states cannot be forced to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. The author of the opinion, Judge Michael Boudin, is an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports. The other panel members are appointees of Presidents Clinton and Reagan.

The U.S. Justice Department had originally supported the law in the federal district court in Massachusetts and in initial briefs before the 1st Circuit. Later the department switched its stance and argued in a new brief that the law violated equal protection guarantees.

The 1st Circuit panel stayed its ruling “anticipating that certiorari will be sought and that Supreme Court review of DOMA is highly likely.”

“This case is difficult because it couples issues of equal protection and federalism with the need to assess the rationale for a congressional statute passed with minimal hearings and lacking in formal findings,” the appeals court said. “In addition, Supreme Court precedent offers some help to each side, but the rationale in several cases is open to interpretation. We have done our best to discern the direction of these precedents, but only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.”

Hat tip to How Appealing.

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