Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Federal Judge: DOMA is Unconstitutional; Congress acting "like an Ostrich"

In a brilliantly-crafted decision, Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Northern District of California has found DOMA Unconstitutional. His decision, while echoing and supporting a similar ruling by Massachusetts District Court Judge Joseph Tauro, goes even further than the July 2010 Massachusetts decision did.

The decision specificially declares that laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation must be reviewed with the same scrutiny as laws that discriminate on the basis of race; trashed every arguement that Congress put forth in the passage of DOMA (including stating that "Congress cannot, like an ostrich, merely bury its head in the sand"); denied the right of Congress to impose its own version of 'morality' or "religion" on the issue; and compared DOMA to efforts to prevent interracial marriage.

And for icing on the cake, Judge White closed the decision by quoting U. S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, seen by most Court-watchers as the moderate, key swing vote when this issue eventually gets to the Supreme Court.

The 43-page decision has been reduced to its barest elements below and is worth a read.

of the United States Office of Personnel Management, in his official capacity, Defendants.


The pertinent facts are not in dispute. Ms. Golinski is a staff attorney in the Motions Unit of the Office of Staff Attorneys in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Ms. Golinski has been partners with Amy Cunninghis for over twenty years...On August 21, 2008, they were legally married under the laws of the State of California. Shortly after they married, Ms. Golinski sought to enroll Ms. Cunninghis in her existing family coverage health insurance plan, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Service Benefit Plan, which she purchases through her employer and which already covers the couple’s adopted minor child. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (“AO”) refused to process her request on the basis that Ms. Golinski and her spouse are both women.

Defense of Marriage Act.

This action presents a challenge to the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to Ms. Golinski...Specifically, Ms. Golinski alleges that, by operation of Section 3 of DOMA, she has been denied certain marriage-based federal benefits that are available to similarly-situated opposite-sex couples, in violation of her rights to equal protection and due process as secured by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

In 1996, Congress enacted and President Clinton signed DOMA into law. Section 3 of DOMA, the only provision at issue in this matter, defines the terms “marriage” and “spouse” for purposes of federal law. Section 3 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.”

The legislative history reveals that Congress acknowledged the constraints imposed by federalism on the determination of who may marry, which has always been uniquely the province of state law. Nonetheless, Congress asserted that it was not “supportive of the notion of same-sex marriage,” and it embraced DOMA as a step toward furthering Congress’ interests in “defend[ing] the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage.” ...Although drastically altering the benefits structure based on state definitions of marriage and the federalist balance in the area of domestic relations, Congress did not hear testimony from agency heads about the effect of DOMA on federal programs, or from historians, economists, or specialists in family or child welfare.

Equal Protection Analysis and Standard of Review.

The “Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment commands that no State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, which is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985)

“[T]he Constitution ‘neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.’” Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 623 (1996) . This principle embodies a commitment to neutrality where the rights of individual persons are at stake. Dragovich v. United States Department of the Treasury, 764 F. Supp. 2d 1178, 1188 (N.D. Cal. 2011). It is because of this commitment to neutrality that legislative provisions which arbitrarily or irrationally create discrete classes cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.

In an attempt to reconcile the promise of equal protection with the reality of lawmaking, courts apply the most searching constitutional scrutiny to those laws that burden a fundamental right or target a suspect class, such as those based on race, national origin, sex or religion. To these groups of protected classifications, subject to a heightened scrutiny, the government is required to demonstrate that the classification is substantially related to an important governmental objective. Laws that do not burden a protected class or infringe on a constitutionally
protected fundamental right are subject to rational basis review. Under the rational basis review, a law must be rationally related to the furtherance of a legitimate governmental interest.

[Bloggers legal note: The above is a critical Legal issue. If a law is passed that discriminates against a group considered a 'suspect class' such as race, the government must prove that the discriminatory law is "substantially related" to an "important government objective." If it discrimninates against other groups, it only has to prove that there is a rational basis for the law, and that it "furthers a legitimate government interest."]

Level of Scrutiny

Here, DOMA makes distinctions between legally married couples, by granting benefits to opposite-sex married couples but denying benefits to same-sex married couples.

Accordingly, DOMA treats gay and lesbian individuals differently on the basis of their sexual orientation. In order to determine whether sexual orientation is considered a suspect or quasisuspect class entitled to heightened scrutiny, the Court must look at various factors. The Supreme Court has considered: (1) the history of invidious discrimination against the class burdened by the legislation; (2) whether the characteristics that distinguish the class indicate a typical class member’s ability to contribute to society; (3) whether the distinguishing characteristics are “immutable” or beyond the class members’ control; and (4) the political
power of the subject class.

The Question of Level of Scrutiny is Still Open.

The Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have yet to issue binding rulings as to whether classifications based on sexual orientation are suspect (or quasi-suspect). …No federal appellate court has meaningfully examined the appropriate level of scrutiny to apply to gay men and lesbians. Therefore, the Court finds the question of what level of scrutiny applies to classifications based on sexual orientation is still open.

1. There is no dispute in the record that lesbians and gay men have experienced a long history of discrimination…

2. Similarly, there is no dispute in the record or the law that sexual orientation has no relevance to a person’s ability to contribute to society…

3. The Court finds persuasive the holding in the Ninth Circuit that sexual orientation is recognized as a defining and immutable characteristic because it is so fundamental to one’s identity.

4. Despite the modest successes in remediating existing discrimination, the record demonstrates that gay men and lesbians continue to suffer discrimination “unlikely to be rectified by legislative means.”

Here, having analyzed the factors, the Court holds that the appropriate level of scrutiny to use when reviewing statutory classifications based on sexual orientation is heightened scrutiny.

[Blogger's legal note: in other words, sexual orientation must be seen similar to race or national origin. Heightened review of the law applies, and the government must prove that the discrimination is "substanbtially related to an important government objective."]

Application of Heightened Scrutiny to Justifications Proffered for DOMA.

Under heightened scrutiny, the proponents of the statute must establish, at a minimum, that the classification is “substantially related to an important governmental objective.”

[Blogger's Legal Note: Congress elucidated four reasons for the passage of DOMA, as described below]

1. The first reason proffered by Congress when enacting DOMA was to encourage responsible procreation and child-rearing…Even if this could be considered a legitimate interest, denying federal recognition of and withholding federal benefits from legally married same-sex couples does nothing to encourage or discourage opposite-sex couples from having children within marriage. Accordingly, the Court finds that the first proffered reason for the passage of DOMA does not provide a justification that is substantially related to an important governmental objective.

2. The second reason proffered by Congress when passing DOMA, was its asserted interest in defending and nurturing traditional, opposite-sex marriage…[T]he ostensible governmental objective of fostering opposite-sex marriages remains unaffected by the passage of DOMA…Nor does the denial of benefits to same-sex couples do anything to encourage opposite-sex couples to get married. Accordingly, the Court does not find that the second proffered reason for the passage of DOMA provides a justification that is substantially related to an important governmental objective.

3. The third reason proffered by Congress when passing DOMA was its asserted interest in defending traditional notions of morality. Basing legislation on moral disapproval of same-sex couples does not pass any level of scrutiny…The imposition of subjective moral beliefs of a majority upon a minority cannot provide a justification for the legislation. The
obligation of the Court is “to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.” Accordingly, the Court does not find that the third proffered reason for the passage of DOMA provides a justification that is substantially related to an important governmental objective.

4. The final reason proffered by Congress for passing DOMA was the preservation of scarce government resources. However, there is no evidence in the record to demonstrate that the provision of federal benefits to same-sex married couples would adversely affect the government fisc[ally.] In addition, the preservation of government resources cannot, as a matter of
law, justify barring some arbitrarily chosen group from a government program. Plyler, 457 U.S. at 227, 229…Accordingly, the Court does not find that the fourth proffered reason for the passage ofDOMA provides a justification that is substantially related to an important governmental objective.

The Court concludes that, based on the justifications proffered by Congress for its passage of DOMA, the statute fails to satisfy heightened scrutiny and is unconstitutional as applied to Ms. Golinski.

[Parallel with Anti-Miscegenation Laws]

Proponents similarly argued that the long-standing tradition of the separation of the races provided justification for prohibiting interracial marriage. The lower court in Loving v. Virginia found that God had created the races and placed them on separate continents in order that there “would be no cause for such [interracial] marriages.” 388 U.S. at 3. It was, at the time, a strongly-held belief among proponents of antimiscegenation laws that mixing the races was against God’s will,
flaunted a long history of tradition and, at its core, endangered the institution of marriage. However, in its holding in Loving, the Supreme Court found that although interracial marriage was a socially divisive issue and proponents of antimiscegenation held traditional and religious beliefs about the erosion of the traditional concept of marriage, Virginia’s racial classification violated the equal protection guarantee.

…[T]his Court finds that Congress cannot, like an ostrich, merely bury its head in the sand and wait for danger to pass, especially at the risk of permitting continued constitutional injury upon legally married couples. The fact that the issue is socially divisive does nothing to relieve the judiciary of its obligation to examine the constitutionality of the discriminating classifications in the law. Accordingly, the Court finds that Congressional caution in the area of social divisiveness does not constitute a rational basis.

The Court has found that DOMA unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex married couples. Even though animus is clearly present in its legislative history, the Court, having examined that history, the arguments made in its support, and the effects of the law, is persuaded that something short of animus may have motivated DOMA’s passage:

Prejudice, we are beginning to understand, rises not from malice or hostile animus alone. It may result as well from insensitivity caused by simple want of careful, rational reflection or from some instinctive mechanism to guard against people who appear to be different in some respects from ourselves. Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 374-75 (2001) (Kennedy, J., concurring)


No comments: