Many in California have likely never heard of the First Circuit – a federal court of appeals located in Massachusetts. It hears appeals of federal cases from lower federal courts located in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico. Cases at the circuit court level are considered final unless they are appealed to the Supreme Court. Recently, the First Circuit ruled that Section 3 of DOMA, the portion that defines marriage as between one man and one woman for federal purposes, is unconstitutional. This case is one in which appeal is taken as a given.
DOMA has serious impacts on LGBT couples in domestic partnerships in California as well as the LGBT couples who married before Prop 8 was passed. In essence, because it excludes same-sex-couples from the federal definition of marriage, all sorts of federal benefits, including tax deductions, often given to spouses are denied to the spouse or domestic partner of the same sex.
While there appears to be some chance of DOMA being repealed in Congress itself, it doesn’t seem particularly likely given the large number of religious conservatives in Congress who would oppose such a move. Thus, the only real way that DOMA is likely to be struck down is if the Supreme Court rules on the issue. However, even if the case makes it up to the Supreme Court, there is no guarantee that a ruling will agree with the First Circuit. For a few reasons, this is one issue in which even many of the traditional conservative justices are likely to find DOMA unconstitutional (at least the section that is at issue in this case).
DOMA, and cases challenging it, is unique among other cases involving the rights of LGBT individuals because challengers are not required to rely on the premise that there is a constitutional right for same-sex-couples to marry. For various reasons challenges relying on that argument have a much more difficult shot at creating change through a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court than this case does.
The main issue is that there is no support in past Supreme Court cases that laws impacting LGBT individuals need to be examined too closely when challenges are raised. The Supreme Court appears hesitant to create a completely new constitutional right where one has not existed in the past.
Second, such a ruling would invalidate constitutional amendments passed in many states, including California, limiting marriage as between one man and one woman. All these states would be forced to allow same-sex-marriages. While many waiting for progress would welcome such a result, it would likely cause public backlash.
In some ways, challenges to DOMA might be expected to be dead in the water thanks to a standard called rational basis, which requires ordinary laws passed by congress to be given extreme deference such that Courts will uphold the law as long as they can come up with a good reason why it was passed.
However, a string of cases suggests that courts should not be so quick to accept reasons behind a law that appears to negatively impact a group that is politically unpopular. One such case dealt directly with LGBT individuals, giving courts a good reason to stop and question Congress’ reasons behind DOMA more than they otherwise would.
Standing alone, this harder look given to DOMA would be expected by many familiar with Constitutional Law. What makes the opinion so interesting, and strong, is that the court finds a second reason to look closely at DOMA. In essence, the court says that because DOMA prevents federal recognition of same-sex-marriages in states where they are valid (including Massachusetts and New York), it intrudes on the rights of the states to decide what makes a valid marriage.
Because of the Court’s detailed look at DOMA, it finds that many of the proposed purposes of the law are not valid. Congress claims that DOMA was passed to: (1) defend and nurture traditional marriage; (2) defend traditional notions of morality; and (3) preserve scarce state resources. (a fourth reason is given but it doesn’t appear to apply to the challenged portion of the law). I won’t get into the details of why each rationale was insufficient but I think it is safe to say that if the Supreme Court takes a similar close look at DOMA and the rationales they will come to a similar conclusion that Section 3 is unconstitutional.
This is not the only case challenging DOMA making its way to the Supreme Court and it is possible that one in California will be heard by the Supreme Court at a later date. In sum, because of concerns that DOMA was passed to legislate negative feelings towards LGBT individuals and its clear impact on the rights of the states to define marriage, it appears to be fairly likely that if the Supreme Court takes the case it will strike down Section 3 of DOMA as unconstitutional.
Such a ruling would likely allow LGBT couples to file joint federal taxes and take advantage of all the exemptions traditionally given to married couples. A repeal of DOMA would also have a big impact on couples receiving healthcare, pension, and disability benefits from private employers. DOMA currently prevents these benefits from extending to same-sex-spouses because such plans are covered by a federal law called ERISA. These are only a few of the numerous ways that a repeal of DOMA would benefit same-sex-couples.