A federal appeals court in Massachusetts on May 31 declared that a portion of the law, which bans federal recognition of same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional — becoming the fifth federal court and first appellate court to do so.
The appeals court decision was followed by a similar ruling June 6 by a federal judge in the case of “Windsor v. United States.”
In the Windsor case, the judge ruled in favor of Edie Windsor, who sued the government after she was forced to pay over $363,000 in estate taxes after the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, in 2009.
The Massachusetts decision, handed down by a unanimous three-member panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, affirms a 2010 decision by the District Court in Massachusetts, which found that the federal government cannot deny same-sex couples equal access to tax, health and pension benefits given to heterosexual couples.
Judge Michael Boudin wrote in the opinion that the denial of benefits to legally married same-sex couples “has not been supported by any permissible federal interest.”
Boudin and another judge on the panel are Republican appointees.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, noted that Boudin is “one of the most well-respected conservative federal judges in the country,” which he said signals a “death knell for this discriminatory law.”
“Every day that DOMA remains on the books, it is causing serious harm to same-sex couples and their children and branding all lesbian, gay and bisexual people as inferior,” Minter said.
The ruling was applied to two conjoined cases — one filed by the state of Massachusetts and another brought by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders on behalf of a group of same-sex couples.
The decision was stayed by the panel, with an acknowledgement that an appeal to the Supreme Court was “highly likely,” adding that “Only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.”
An appeal will be handled by the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives, which stepped in to defend DOMA when the Obama administration declined to do so.
BLAG could appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which has the discretion to decline to hear the case, or ask for consideration by the full First Circuit Court, although that route is not likely since the court is comprised only of five judges, and last week’s decision was unanimous.
The constitutionality of a state DOMA is also headed toward the Supreme Court with the challenge of California’s Proposition 8.
A federal appellate court last year found the measure to be unconstitutional, and a district court recently declined to re-hear the case; the next step is likely the U.S. Supreme Court.
Also in California, a federal judge earlier this year found DOMA to be unconstitutional in a challenge brought by a federal employee who was denied benefits for her partner. That case is pending before an appellate court and could also eventually wind up before the Supreme Court.
Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.