The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled this morning that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denies a host of federal benefits to gay married couples and is therefore unconstitutional. The decision is not only a win for equal rights advocates, but a near dare to the Roberts Court to take up the matter sooner rather than later.
The appeals court agreed with a lower court judge who rule in 2012 that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the rights of states to define marriage and also because it denies married gay couples federal benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file joint tax returns.
It also forces states to comport other programs–like Medicaid assistance for example–to meet DOMA requirements or risk federal funding.
The ruling ups the ante on Supreme Court review of the controversial law, especially in light of conservatives doubling down on DOMA as a campaign point and the Obama administration’s position that the Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of the law. The opinion notes the fact that the statute was passed with minimal hearings and lacks formal findings in support of the need for the statute–two things courts often turn to in interpreting federal laws and determining the boundary where federal action must stop and state action can begin. It’s a signal the court is suspicious at best of the overall legitimacy of the statute to begin with and that, given the nature of the discriminatory impact of DOMA, a reason not to employ the extreme deference federal courts normally show economic legislation.
It’s an important albeit wonky distinction that appears directed right at the Roberts Court. Had the 1st Circuit grounded its analysis in traditional suspect-class categorization that equal protection challenges normally require the Roberts Court could easily seize on that decision as its basis of review and arguably overturn the 1st Circuit with very little controversy after decades of conservatives successfully watering down equal protection jurisprudence.
But instead the appellate court refuses the bait and relied on the line of cases following Romer that requires the government show more than a minimum justification in singling out a specific minority group for differential economic treatment. Because Congress failed to memorialize the need for discriminating against same-sex couples in the delivery of federal benefits the statute fails.
Your move, Chief Justice.
Photo from colindunn via flickr.