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BREAKING NEWS: DOMA ruled unconstitutional in California case

SAN FRANCISCO – The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protections clause, a federal judge ruled today in an important test case in California that could have national implications.

Lambda Legal just tweeted the breaking news, noting that this is the first DOMA-related ruling since the Justice Department said that the federal law is unconstitutional and that it would not defend it in court.

Tara Borelli, one of the lead attorneys in the case, said "This ruling spells doom for DOMA."

"This ruling, the first to come after the Justice Department announced it would no longer defend this discriminatory statute in court, spells doom for DOMA," said Borelli, staff attorney in Lambda Legal's Western Regional Office in Los Angeles. "The Court recognized the clear fact that a law that denies one class of individuals the rights and benefits available to all others because of their sexual orientation violates the constitutional guarantee of equality embodied in the Fifth Amendment. The Court agreed with us that sexual orientation discrimination by the government should receive heightened scrutiny under the constitution. It then concluded that DOMA could not meet that standard, and that there was not even a rational justification to deny Karen Golinski the same spousal health care benefits that her heterosexual co-workers receive."

Rita Lin, associate at Morrison & Foerster, which brought the case, also weighed in.

"The demise of this discriminatory statute is long overdue, and the court's ruling today makes that clear. DOMA produces circumstances where certain federal employees are compensated differently than their coworkers because of their sexual orientation. That's unconstitutional."

Golinski said she was happy about the ruling.

"I am profoundly grateful for the thought and consideration that Judge White gave to my case," Golinski said. "His decision acknowledges that DOMA violates the Constitution and that my marriage to Amy is equal to those marriages of my heterosexual colleagues. This decision is a huge step toward equality."

District Judge Jeffery White, an appointee by President George W. Bush in 2002, ruled that DOMA violates the rights of Karen Golinski, who was denied spousal health benefits by her employer, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Lambda Legal is representing Golinski in the case Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management.

In January 2008, Chief Judge Alex Kozinksi of the Ninth Circuit ruled that the decision to deny benefits to Golinski violated the Ninth Circuit’s own employment policies prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination. However, the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) argued that DOMA prevented health-care coverage for gay and lesbian spouses of federal employees, and ordered the insurer of Golinski’s wife, Amy Cunninghis, to deny coverage.

Lambda Legal sued the federal government and OPM on Jan. 20, 2010.

In his ruling, Judge White concludes:

The Court has found that DOMA unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex married couples. Even though animus is clearly present in its legislative history, the Court, having examined that history, the arguments made in its support, and the effects of the law, is persuaded that something short of animus may have motivated DOMA’s passage:

"Prejudice, we are beginning to understand, rises not from malice or hostile animus alone. It may result as well from insensitivity caused by simple want of careful, rational reflection or from some instinctive mechanism to guard against people who appear to be different in some respects from ourselves." - Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett

This case was presented by an employee of the judicial branch against the executive branch, which ultimately determined it could not legitimately support the law. The law was then defended by the legislative branch. The judicial branch is tasked with determining whether this federal law is unconstitutional. That is the courts’ authority and responsibility. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is” and, where it is so, to declare legislation unconstitutional.

As Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts said during his confirmation hearings: “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules, they apply them. ... it’s [the judge’s] job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.”

In this matter, the Court finds that DOMA, as applied to Ms. Golinski, violates her right to equal protection of the law under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution by, without substantial justification or rational basis, refusing to recognize her lawful marriage toprevent provision of health insurance coverage to her spouse. Accordingly, the Court issues a permanent injunction enjoining defendants, and those acting at their direction or on their behalf, from interfering with the enrollment of Ms.Golinski’s wife in her family health benefits plan. The Clerk is directed to enter judgment in favor of Ms. Golinski and against defendants the Office of Personnel Management and its director John Berry as set out herein pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 58.

Read the court's order

Golinski Us 20120222 Order