September 6, 2011
Ninth Circuit: Arizona's Denial of Benefits to Same-Sex Partners of Public Employees Violates Equal Protection
In a relatively brief opinion today, a panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district judge's finding that Arizona's denial of health care benefits to same-sex partners of public employees violated the Equal Protection Clause.
In Diaz v. Brewer, the Ninth Circuit panel considered a challenge by public employees, including several university faculty members, to "Section O," from House Bill 2013, which included a statutory provision, Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 38-651(O) that redefined “dependents” as “spouses,” and thus eliminate coverage for domestic partners allowed by a 2008 act.
On appeal, the state argued that the district court improperly construed the complaint's allegations as true and that the district court "impermissibly recognized a constitutional right to healthcare." The Ninth Circuit found both of these arguments rested on a "misunderstanding" of the district judge's opinion. The court stated:
The state is correct in asserting that state employees and their families are not constitutionally entitled to health benefits. But when a state chooses to provide such benefits, it may not do so in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner that adversely affects particular groups that may be unpopular. The most instructive Supreme Court case involving arbitrary restriction of benefits for a particular group perceived as unpopular is U.S. Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528 (1973).
The Ninth Circuit carefully discussed Moreno - - - the "hippie food stamp case" as many students refer to it - - - and then articulated an equally careful analogy:
Here, as in Moreno, the legislature amended a benefits program in order to limit eligibility. Since in this case eligibility was limited to married couples, different-sex couples wishing to retain their current family health benefits could alter their status — marry — to do so. The Arizona Constitution, however, prohibits same-sex couples from doing so.
The Ninth Circuit was quite clear that it was applying rational basis scrutiny, as the district judge had also been, and held that Section O was based on a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group.
The "framers of the Constitution," the court stated, quoting Justice Robert Jackson in Railway Express Agency v. New York, "knew, and we should not forget today that there is no more effective practical guaranty against arbitrary and unreasonable government than to require that the principles of law which officials would impose upon a minority must be imposed generally."
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