Why a federal court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act
The First Circuit wrote that the federal Defense of Marriage Act intruded on states' rights and that the act's defenders failed to justify its impact on gay couples. But the court acknowledged that 'only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.'
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A federal judge in Boston declared DOMA unconstitutional in July 2010. In affirming that decision, the appeals court cited the Supreme Court’s evolving equal protection jurisprudence and a series of federalism decisions.Skip to next paragraph
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The high court ruled in favor of gay rights in 1996 and 2003, and the appeals court applied principles advanced in those and other cases to the DOMA challenge. In addition, the appeals court cited Supreme Court decisions protecting states from federal encroachment into areas the states traditionally regulate, like marriage.
The federal marriage defense law was enacted by Congress in part in an effort to prevent certain states from forcing other states to recognize same-sex marriages.
A federal 'intrusion'
The appeals court said DOMA undercut state interests by imposing federal burdens on states like Massachusetts where same-sex marriages are fully recognized.
Federal involvement in marriage through DOMA is an effort by Congress to “put a thumb on the scales and influence a state’s decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws,” Judge Boudin said.
This federal “intrusion” into an area of traditional state regulation requires judges to engage in a more rigorous examination of DOMA and its impact, the judge said.
The appeals court then compared the rationales offered by federal lawmakers and concluded that they did not provide adequate support to uphold DOMA.
“If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests [gay spouses] and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress’ will, this statute fails that test,” Boudin wrote.
Although the decision establishes a constitutional right of gay married couples to receive equal federal benefits, the appeals court side-stepped the more central issue of whether there is a constitutional right to gay marriage itself.
The appeals court acknowledged that it was not challenging an existing Supreme Court precedent stemming from a 1971 decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court in a case called Baker v. Nelson.
Two gay men sued Minnesota to force the state to allow them to marry. In rejecting their claim of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the Minnesota court said in part: “The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the Book of Genesis.”
When the gay men appealed their case to the US Supreme Court in 1972, the justices rejected the action in a single sentence: “The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question.”
In supporting his decision, Judge Boudin wrote that the Supreme Court has embraced a more protective posture toward minority groups that have long been victims of discrimination, such as gays and lesbians. The high court has also embraced a more protective posture in federalism decisions protecting the rights of states against federal encroachment.
“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,” Boudin said.
“One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice,” he added, “but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage.”