In a decision issued today, Judge Jones found the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Judge Jones’ decision came on the heels of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Tuesday, declining en banc review of its February decision finding California’s Prop 8 unconstitutional, and the First Circuit ‘s affirmance, last week, of two 2010 district court decisions finding that DOMA unconstitutionally denies federal benefits to same-sex couples.
Judge Jones’ is the fifth district court decision to find the law unconstitutional. It joins two from district courts in California (one of which is now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, slated for argument in September) and the two decisions affirmed by the First Circuit last week. The underlying complaint was filed in 2010 by Edith Windsor. Windsor met Thea Spyer in 1963 and the two married in Toronto in 2007. When Spyer died two years later, Windsor did not qualify for the unlimited marital deduction – because her marriage to Spyer was not legally recognized – and was required to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax. Windsor’s suit sought a refund of the tax levied on Spyer’s estate and a declaration that Section 3 of DOMA violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Windsor moved for summary judgment in 2011, arguing, in the alternative, that DOMA is subject to strict constitutional scrutiny – because homosexuals are a suspect class – or that DOMA has no rational basis. Judge Jones applied rational basis review, and examined the interests advanced by Congress and BLAG (the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives, which intervened to defend the law’s constitutionality) to justify the law:
Contemporaneous with its enactment, Congress justified DOMA as defending and nurturing the traditional institution of marriage; promoting heterosexuality; encouraging responsible procreation and childrearing; preserving scarce government resources; and defending traditional notions of morality. In its motion…BLAG advances some, but not all of these interests as rational bases for DOMA. It additionally asserts that Congress passed DOMA in the interests of caution, maintaining consistency in citizens’ eligibility for federal benefits, promoting a social understanding that marriage is related to childrearing, and providing children with two parents of the opposite sex.
With regard to Congress’ interest in promoting family values and responsible parenting, Judge Jones found no logical relationship between DOMA and those goals:
These are interests in the choices that heterosexual couples make: whether to get married, and whether and when to have children. Yet DOMA has no direct impact on heterosexual couples at all; therefore, its ability to deter those couples from having children outside of marriage, or to incentivize couples that are pregnant to get married, is remote, at best. It does not follow that the exclusion of one group from federal benefits (same-sex married persons) that another group of people (opposite-sex married couples) will be incentivized to take any action, whether that is marriage or procreation.
Judge Jones did “discern a link” between DOMA and Congress’ motivation to insure uniformity of federal benefits, but found that DOMA overstepped by intruding upon the “states’ business of regulating domestic relations.”
Yet even if Congress had developed a newfound interest in promoting or maintaining consistency in the marital benefits that the federal government provides, DOMA is not a legitimate method for doing so. To accomplish that consistency, DOMA operates to reexamine the states’ decisions and rejects others. But such a sweeping federal review in this arena does not square with our federalist system of government, which places matters at the “core” of the domestic relations law exclusively within the province of the states.
Windsor is represented by lawyers from Paul Weiss, along with the ACLU and the NYCLU.