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Plaintiffs Nancy Gill and Marcelle Letourneau
Plaintiffs Nancy Gill and Marcelle Letourneau
A unanimous panel of United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has upheld the 2010 Massachusetts district court decision declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in its denial of federal benefits to couples legally married by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In short, the panel determined that none of the proffered justifications for DOMA could withstand the heightened level of scrutiny required of legislation that targets historically disadvantaged or unpopular groups.

The panel was composed of Judges Lynch (Clinton nominee), Torruella (Reagan), and Boudin (GHWB); the opinion was written by Judge Boudin, who served as Chief Judge for the First Circuit from 2001-08.

Interestingly, the panel holds that DOMA does have a rational basis ...

Under such a rational basis standard, the Gill plaintiffs cannot prevail. Consider only one of the several justifications for DOMA offered by Congress itself, namely, that broadening the definition of marriage will reduce tax revenues and increase social security payments. This is the converse of the very advantages that the Gill plaintiffs are seeking, and Congress could rationally have believed that DOMA would reduce costs, even if newer studies of the actual economic effects of DOMA suggest that it may in fact raise costs for the federal government.
... but that a heightened standard instead applies, per the Moreno/City of Cleburne/Romer line of cases I've previously discussed:
Without relying on suspect classifications, Supreme Court equal protection decisions have both intensified scrutiny of purported justifications where minorities are subject to discrepant treatment and have limited the permissible justifications. And (as we later explain), in areas where state regulation has traditionally governed, the Court may require that the federal government interest in intervention be shown with special clarity.

In a set of equal protection decisions, the Supreme Court has now several times struck down state or local enactments without invoking any suspect classification. In each, the protesting group was historically disadvantaged or unpopular, and the statutory justification seemed thin, unsupported or impermissible. It is these decisions--not classic rational basis review--that the Gill plaintiffs and the Justice Department most usefully invoke in their briefs (while seeking to absorb them into different and more rigid categorical rubrics)....

All three of the cited cases--Moreno, City of Cleburne and Romer--stressed the historic patterns of disadvantage suffered by the group adversely affected by the statute. As with the women, the poor and the mentally impaired, gays and lesbians have long been the subject of discrimination. Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 571. The Court has in these cases undertaken a more careful assessment of the justifications than the light scrutiny offered by conventional rational basis review.

And given that burden of proof, these penalties visited upon same-sex couples require a more substantive basis:

As for burden, the combined effect of DOMA's restrictions on federal benefits will not prevent same-sex marriage where permitted under state law; but it will penalize those couples by limiting tax and social security benefits to opposite-sex couples in their own and all other states. For those married same-sex couples of which one partner is in federal service, the other cannot take advantage of medical care and other benefits available to opposite-sex partners in Massachusetts and everywhere else in the country.

These burdens are comparable to those the Court found substantial in Moreno, City of Cleburne, and Romer. Moreno, like this case, involved meaningful economic benefits; City of Cleburne involved the opportunity to secure housing; Romer, the chance to secure equal protection of the laws on the same terms as other groups. Loss of survivor's social security, spouse-based medical care and tax benefits are major detriments on any reckoning; provision for retirement and medical care are, in practice, the main components of the social safety net for vast numbers of Americans.

And as for the proffered federal interest in a uniform definition of marriage, this panel finds the interests of federalism to push in the other direction of allowing states the freedom to define marriage for themselves:
[T]he denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married does burden the choice of states like Massachusetts to regulate the rules and incidents of marriage; notably, the Commonwealth stands both to assume new administrative burdens and to lose funding for Medicaid or veterans' cemeteries solely on account of its same-sex marriage laws. These consequences do not violate the Tenth Amendment or Spending Clause, but Congress' effort to put a thumb on the scales and influence a state's decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws does bear on how the justifications are assessed.... Given that DOMA intrudes broadly into an area of traditional state regulation, a closer examination of the justifications that would prevent DOMA from violating equal protection (and thus from exceeding federal authority) is uniquely reinforced by federalism concerns.
And then, in turn, the panel demolishes the remaining justifications that Paul Clement offered for DOMA on behalf of House Republicans:
First, starting with the most concrete of the cited reasons--"preserving scarce government resources"--it is said that DOMA will save money for the federal government by limiting tax savings and avoiding social security and other payments to spouses. This may well be true, or at least might have been thought true; more detailed recent analysis indicates that DOMA is more likely on a net basis to cost the government money.
A second rationale of a pragmatic character, advanced by the Legal Group's brief and several others, is to support child-rearing in the context of stable marriage.  The evidence as to child rearing by same-sex couples is the subject of controversy, but we need not enter the debate. Whether or not children raised by opposite-sex marriages are on average better served, DOMA cannot preclude same-sex couples in Massachusetts from adopting children or prevent a woman partner from giving birth to a child to be raised by both partners.

Although the House Report is filled with encomia to heterosexual marriage, DOMA does not increase benefits to opposite-sex couples--whose marriages may in any event be childless, unstable or both--or explain how denying benefits to same-sex couples will reinforce heterosexual marriage. Certainly, the denial will not affect the gender choices of those seeking marriage. This is not merely a matter of poor fit of remedy to perceived problem, but a lack of any demonstrated connection between DOMA's treatment of same-sex couples and its asserted goal of strengthening the bonds and benefits to society of heterosexual marriage.

For generations, moral disapproval has been taken as an adequate basis for legislation, although usually in choices made by state legislators to whom general police power is entrusted. But, speaking directly of same-sex preferences, Lawrence ruled that moral disapproval alone cannot justify legislation discriminating on this basis.  Moral judgments can hardly be avoided in legislation, but Lawrence and Romer have undercut this basis.

Finally, it has been suggested by the Legal Group's brief that, faced with a prospective change in state marriage laws, Congress was entitled to "freeze" the situation and reflect. But the statute was not framed as a temporary time-out; and it has no expiration date, such as one that Congress included in the Voting Rights Act.  The House Report's own arguments--moral, prudential and fiscal--make clear that DOMA was not framed as a temporary measure.

And, so, it's time for the big finish:
For 150 years, this desire to maintain tradition would alone have been justification enough for almost any statute. This judicial deference has a distinguished lineage, including such figures as Justice Holmes, the second Justice Harlan, and Judges Learned Hand and Henry Friendly. But Supreme Court decisions in the last fifty years call for closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern.

To conclude, many Americans believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and most Americans live in states where that is the law today. One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage. Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress' denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest.

This Court, however, will not have the last word. As the panel notes,
This case is difficult because it couples issues of equal protection and federalism with the need to assess the rationale for a congressional statute passed with minimal hearings and lacking in formal findings. In addition, Supreme Court precedent offers some help to each side, but the rationale in several cases is open to interpretation. We have done our best to discern the direction of these precedents, but only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.
Paging Justice Kennedy!

Originally posted to Adam B on Thu May 31, 2012 at 08:11 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos and Kossacks for Marriage Equality.

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