Thursday, May 31, 2012

Appeals court: DOMA unconstitutional for denying benefits

There has been three federal district courts that have ruled the Defense of Marriage Act  (DOMA) unconstitutional where the act denies federal benefits to lawfully married federal employees. Now a federal appeals court in Boston has affirmed, at least for those within the Boston federal appeals jurisdiction. However, the decision is far from final - the US Supreme Court needs to speak.

It is actually a very simple issue: does congress have a valid basis to discriminate against a minority. It is possible, but it is not, and it cannot be, because of moral disapproval.

While these decisions may seem an historic shift in same-sex marriage rights - there is still a long way to go. Contrary to GLAD's executive director the Boston Federal Appeals Court did not determine or acknowledge that "same-sex couples are legally married, just as any other couple, . . .  ." [Court: Defense of Marriage Act discriminates].

The cases thus far have been reasoned on issues of federalism and equal protection. In the matter of federalism - there is no apparent dispute that marriage is within the purview of the states. However, the Boston court while declining to use federalism as a basis for its decision determined that "Supreme Court precedent relating to federalism-based challenges to federal laws reinforce the need for closer than usual scrutiny of DOMA's justifications and diminish somewhat the deference ordinarily accorded."

It is the "scrutiny" that is important in the judicial world. Thus, ordinarily federal courts would give great deference to congressional legislation. But when discrimination against minority groups are involved the degree or level of scrutiny ramps upward.

Thus, it is the concept of equal protection that has the court's attention. Thus, the real issue is that government in law making must ordinarily have some basis for discriminating against a minority group. There is more to it than that, but it is fairly accurate.

The Boston court essentially states that "disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress' will . . . ." Thus, "[u]nder 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."

No federal interest justifies Congress's denial of federal benefits to lawfully married couples.

It is difficult to see how the US Supreme Court will come to any other determination although its rationale might differ. It is not even clear (I haven't researched it) that without a federal trial court finding DOMA constitutional that the US Supreme Court has to take the case, i.e., it could decline.

Resources:
Boston appeals court finds US Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional for denying benefits
Court: Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional for denying same-sex married couples federal benefits 
Boston Federal Appellate Court decision (pdf) (text)


Calif. federal court rules against DOMA
US Northern District of California,   Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management
Gay marriage: Judge overturns DOMA, stepping up pressure on Supreme Court
Doma ruled unconstitutional for denying benefits to same-sex couples

Federalism in the United States - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  
United States district court - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  

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