Another Federal Judge Finds DOMA Marriage Definition Unconstitutional, Now in Widow's Case

Posted by Chris Geidner
June 6, 2012 5:54 PM |

Echoing several other recent court opinions, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones today ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act's federal definition of marriage is unconstitutional insofar as it forced Edie Windsor to pay estate taxes after the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, that would not have been owed had she been married to a man.

Windsor-RMA.jpgIn deciding that the statute is unconstitutional under the lowest level of judicial scrutiny -- rational basis -- Jones, a Clinton appointee, wrote:

Regardless whether a more "searching" form of rational basis scrutiny is required where a classification burdens homosexuals as a class and the states' prerogatives are concerned, at a minimum this court "must insist on knowing the relation between the classification adopted and the object to be attained. The search for the link between classification and objective gives substance to the equal protection analysis. Additionally, as has always been required under the rational basis test, irrespective of the context, the court must consider whether the government's asserted interests are legitimate. Pursuant to those established principles, and mindful of the Supreme Court's jurisprudential cues, the court finds that DOMA's section 3 does not pass constitutional muster.

The ruling in Windsor's case, which was filed in the Southern District of New York, comes less than a week after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit unanimously found DOMA unconstitutional under a type of rational basis analysis, affirming a decision earlier reached on more expansive reasoning by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro. 

In a statement reacting to the decision released by her lawyers at the ACLU, Windsor said, "Thea and I shared our lives together for 44 years, and I miss her each and every day. It's thrilling to have a court finally recognize how unfair it is for the government to have treated us as though we were strangers."

Other federal trial-court judges, in addition to Tauro and now Jones, also have found Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White in California reached the same conclusion earlier this year in a case slated for appeals arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in September. On May 24, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken reached a similar decision in the class-action lawsuit, finding that Section 3 of DOMA and a provision of tax law unconstitutionally limit same-sex couples and domestic partners from participating in the long-term care plan offered by the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS. Additionally, a federal bankruptcy judge in California -- supported by several others -- also found that DOMA was unconstitutional insofar as it barred married same-sex couples from filing joint bankruptcy returns, a decision that resulted in the federal government no longer contesting such joint bankruptcy petitions.

Windsor's case was one of two cited by Attorney General Eric Holder in his February 23, 2011, letter to House Speaker John Boehner detailing the administration's legal conclusion that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.

The House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, led by the House Republican leadership, opposed Windsor's lawsuit seeking repayment of the $350,000 estate tax bill that she paid following Spyer's death. BLAG has hired Paul Clement, the former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, to represent it in court. DOJ, meanwhile, supported Windsor's suit in court filings.

The ACLU and the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP are representing Windsor.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the lead sponsor of the law to repeal DOMA -- the Respect for Marriage Act -- issued a statement celebrating the decision.

"I congratulate Edie for this first offering of justice after she has had to endure so much injustice," he said. "Both the Constitution and basic commonsense tell us that no reasonable law would deny Edie and Thea Spyer, her late fiancée of decades, the very same federal protections and responsibilities that every other committed American couple is afforded."

He also took a swipe at BLAG and Clement, saying, "I am again gratified that Paul Clement and Speaker Boehner's BLAG have been unable to defend a law that is so thoroughly indefensible."

An appeal of Windsor's case, if sought by BLAG, would be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

READ the decision: 96208124-Edie-Windsor-wins-her-DOMA-case.pdf

[Photo: Windsor (Photo by Chris Geidner.)]


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