Saturday, July 24, 2010

Arizona HB 2013 Likely Unconstitutional: Federal Court Orders State Employee Benefits for Same-Sex Domestic Partners

With all the attention to the constitutional challenges to Arizona SB 1070 on immigration, it would be easy to miss a federal district court decision granting a preliminary injunction against another recently passed Arizona statute signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer: HB 2013.   

Animated-Flag-Arizona Yesterday, US District Judge John Sedwick denied the government's motion to dismiss and granted the plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the enforcement of HB 2013, also known as Section O.  

Previous to Section  O, same-sex and opposite-sex partners of state employees were eligible to be covered under state benefits assuming domestic partnership requirements were met.  Section O, however amended the benefit eligibility scheme so that "‘dependent’ means a spouse under the laws of this state, a child who is under nineteen years of age or a child who is under twenty-three years of age and who is a full-time student.”   As the judge explained:

Section O eliminates family coverage for non-spouse domestic partners, whether they are of the same or different sex. Heterosexual domestic partners may continue to receive subsidized family health coverage by getting married. Same-sex couples are precluded from obtaining coverage because Section O limits coverage to “spouses” under the laws of Arizona.

The judge rejected the state's argument that Section O was neutral, but held that it made a classification based on sexual orientation: "Section O unquestionably imposes different treatment on the basis of sexual orientation,”  and "denies lesbian and gay State employees in a qualifying domestic partnership a valuable form of compensation on the basis of sexual orientation."

In considering the equal protection challenge, the judge decided there was no need to consider whether some form of heightened scrutiny should apply because Section O failed rational basis scrutiny. The judge rejected the four state interests offered by Arizona to support Section O: Cost Savings, Administrative Convenience, "Funds Better Spent on Heterosexual Spouses," and "Interest in Favoring Marriage and Families with Children."  Perhaps most interestingly, the judge found the government's interest regarding "funds better spent on heterosexual spouses" not legitimate because it was based on animosity.

The judge found that the plaintiffs had a likelihood of success on the merits of the equal protection claim (but not on a substantive due process claim that was also raised).  When considering the "irreparable injury" prong of the test for granting a preliminary injunction, the judge quoted Ninth Circuit language that

an alleged constitutional infringement will alone constitute irreparable harm. Unlike monetary injuries, constitutional violations cannot be adequately remedied through damages and therefore generally constitute irreparable harm.

However, the judge also reasoned that it is not simply the denial of insurance benefits but the anxiety and stress of losing medical coverage that constitutes irreparable injury.

Standing alone, this is an important case involving the equal protection claim of state employees who are in same-sex relationships.  In the context of the Arizona immigration controversy presently before the federal court, it sheds light on the standard for a preliminary injunction to enjoin a state statute and demonstrates a federal judiciary willing to enjoin a recently passed statute by the Arizona legislature. 

{Update: Arizona immigration statute partially enjoined; here}


Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality | Permalink

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