09 June 2012

Appeals Court Strikes A Blow For Equality

By Ted McLaughlin

Several federal district courts have ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional because it denies gays and lesbians the same rights that heterosexual couples have when they get married. But a federal appeals court had never ruled on DOMA. Now the United States 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston has ruled the heart of DOMA to be unconstitutional.

DOMA was passed to prevent the states from making same-sex marriage legal (as several have now done). The Republicans, who claim to be for states' rights, tried to deny states the right to make this decision for themselves. Massachusetts was the state challenging DOMA, in a case called Massachusetts vs. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Massachusetts is one of the states that has legalized same-sex marriage. In their decision, the court said:

If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress' will, this statute fails that test.

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.

The best part is that two of the three justices that ruled against DOMA were appointed by Republican presidents. The three judge panel was made up of Michael Boudin (appointed by Bush I), Juan Torruella (appointed by Reagan), and Sandra Lynch (appointed by Clinton).

Earlier this month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that California's proposition 8 (which denied the right of same-sex marriage in that state) was unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by causing "meaningful harm to gays and lesbians". It is likely that both court decisions will be appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has been putting off making any decision regarding same-sex marriage, but in light of these two decisions they will probably now have to take up the issue. They could combine the two suits and make a broad decision on same-sex marriage rights, but it is more likely they will just decide each separately and give the states the right to make their own decision (since heterosexual marraige rights are granted by each state, rather than the federal government). Either way, it will be interesting to see what happens.

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