Thursday, July 8, 2010
DOMA Unconstitutional: Massachusetts Federal District Judge Finds Section 3 of Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional
In two decisions today, Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. HHS and Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, United States District Judge Joseph Tauro held section 3 of the Defense of Mariage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.
Section 3 of DOMA, 1 USC section 7, provides:
In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.
Thus, same-sex partners who are legally married pursuant to Massachusetts law are nevertheless not considered married for federal purposes.
In Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. US Dept of Health and Human Services, the Judge first found that the Commonwealth had standing to bring the lawsuit, noting that the federal "VA already informed the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services that the federal government is entitled to recapture millions of dollars in federal grants if the Commonwealth decides to entomb an otherwise ineligible same-sex spouse of a veteran," and that the "Commonwealth has amassed approximately $640,661 in additional tax liability and forsaken at least $2,224,018 in federal funding because DOMA bars HHS’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services from using federal funds to insure same-sex married couples." (Opinion at 21). The Judge then merged the Tenth Amendment and Spending Clause challenges - - - "two sides of the same coin" - - - although specifically discussing and applying the classic spending clause case of South Dakota v. Dole. The Judge found that DOMA "plainly intrudes on a core area of state sovereignty—the ability to define the marital status of its citizens," and applied First Circuit precedent regarding the test for a Tenth Amendment analysis. (Opinion at 28). Further, Judge Tauro discussed the historical practice of marriage and family as being state, rather than federal matters, and noted:
That the Supreme Court, over the past century, has repeatedly offered family law as an example of a quintessential area of state concern, also persuades this court that marital status determinations are an attribute of state sovereignty. For instance, in [United States v. ] Morrison, the Supreme Court noted that an overly expansive view of the Commerce Clause could lead to federal legislation of “family law and other areas of traditional state regulation since the aggregate effect of marriage, divorce, and childrearing on the national economy is undoubtedly significant.” Similarly, in Elk Grove Unified Sch. Dist. v. Newdow, the Supreme Court observed “that ‘[t]he whole subject of the domestic relations of husband and wife, parent and child, belongs to the laws of the States and not to the laws of the United States.’”
Opinion at 32. Thus, the Judge concluded that by enacting and enforcing DOMA, the federal government "encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state, and, in doing so, offends the Tenth Amendment." Opinion at 36.
In the companion case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, (opinion available above), the Judge considered the challenge of seven plaintiffs who had been in same-sex marriages in Massachusetts and were denied federal benefits, including survivors’ benefits. Judge Tauro outlined the plaintiffs arguments that the classification should merit strict scrutiny under equal protection clause doctrine, but held that the court “need not address these arguments, however, because DOMA fails to pass constitutional muster even under the highly deferential rational basis test,” because “there exists no fairly conceivable set of facts that could ground a rational relationship” between DOMA and a legitimate government objective, and that therefore DOMA violates the core constitutional principles of equal protection. Opinion at 21.
The Judge wrote that the Congressional House Report identifies four interests which Congress sought to advance through the enactment of DOMA: (1) encouraging responsible procreation and child-bearing, (2) defending and nurturing the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage, (3) defending traditional notions of morality, and (4) preserving scarce resources.
The Judge analyzed these interests finding them not legitimate, but not before noting that for "purposes of this litigation, the government has disavowed Congress’s stated justifications for the statute." Opinion at 23.
The Obama Administration's stance in defending DOMA has been watched closely; we discussed it here, and in the California litigation here. According to Judge Tauro, in essence, the government now argued that "the Constitution permitted Congress to enact DOMA as a means to preserve the 'status quo,' pending the resolution of a socially contentious debate taking place in the states over whether to sanction same-sex marriage." Opinion at 27. Judge Tauro also found that interest not legitimate, echoing some of the Tenth Amendment arguments in the companion case, Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. HHS, regarding the federal governments role - - - or lack of role - - - in marriage and family law.
The Judge also found that the 'status quo' rationale was not rationally served by DOMA:
The states alone are empowered to determine who is eligible to marry and, as of 1996 [the year DOMA was passed] no state had extended such eligibility to same-sex couples. In 1996, therefore, it was indeed the status quo at the state level to restrict the definition of marriage to the union of one man and one
woman. But, the status quo at the federal level was to recognize, for federal purposes, any marriage declared valid according to state law. Thus, Congress’ enactment of a provision denying federal recognition to a particular category of valid state-sanctioned marriages was, in fact, a significant departure from the status quo at the federal level.
Opinion at 32. Explicitly accepting the Plaintiffs’ argument, Judge Tauro, reasoned that "DOMA seems to inject complexity into an otherwise straightforward administrative task by sundering the class of state sanctioned marriages into two, those that are valid for federal purposes and those that are not.” Opinion at 35. Regarding the rational relationship argument, the Judge concluded that DOMA was based on "irrational prejudice" and therefore violated the equal protection clause as applicable to the federal government through the Fifth Amendment.
Thus, this federal district judge finds DOMA's section 3 unconstitutional, a ruling that will have great import for Massachusetts same-sex married couples and the state of Massachusetts, and which could be used persuasively in other states such as Iowa which allow same-sex marriage.
Whether or not the Obama Administration will appeal the ruling will be closely watched.