In a major ruling, United States District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro has struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defining lmarriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman. The bill was supported and signed by former President Bill Clinton. Tauro was appointed to the bench by President Nixon back in 1972.
The Court reviewed claims in two related cases: Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Massachusetts v. HHS.
The law protected states from having to recognize the marriage licenses issued to same sex couples in other states:
No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.
Judge Tauro ruled “it is clearly within the authority of the Commonwealth to recognize same-sex marriages among its residents, and to afford those individuals in same-sex marriages any benefits, rights, and privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of their marital status . . . The federal government, by enacting and enforcing DOMA, plainly encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state.” It will be interesting to see the attacks from the right on the decision since it is heavily steeped in states’ rights: noting that “the federal government traditionally regarded marital status determinations as the exclusive province of state government.” Tauro found that DOMA violated the Tenth Amendment and constitutes a strong endorsement of the inherent rights of states. While that should please liberals in the result, it is the type of argument that supports the challenges to such federal laws as the National Health Care bill. For an earlier column, click here.
The Court follows the earlier decision in United States v. Bongiorno“
That DOMA plainly intrudes on a core area of state sovereignty—the ability to define the marital status of its citizens—also convinces this court that the statute violates the Tenth Amendment.
In United States v. Bongiorno, the First Circuit held that “a Tenth Amendment attack on a federal statute cannot succeed without three ingredients: (1) the statute must regulate the States as States, (2) it must concern attributes of state sovereignty, and (3) it must be of such a nature that compliance with it would impair a state’s ability to structure integral operations in areas of traditional governmental functions.”
The Court found that the prongs were satisfied here and noted that the Justice Department offered little to rebut the historical and policy arguments put forward by the plaintiffs. Instead, the Court found the federal government largely arguing that this was simply an important political issue — which is less compelling in this context as a constitutional claim:
That the government views same-sex marriage as a contentious social issue cannot justify its intrusion on the “core of sovereignty retained by the States,” because “the Constitution … divides power among sovereigns and among branches of government precisely so that we may resist the temptation to concentrate power in one location as an expedient solution to the crisis of the day.” This court has determined that it is clearly within the authority of the Commonwealth to recognize same-sex marriages among its residents, and to afford those individuals in same-sex marriages any benefits, rights, and privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of their marital status. The federal government, by enacting and enforcing DOMA, plainly encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state, and, in doing so, offends the Tenth Amendment. For that reason, the statute is invalid.
The decision could trigger renewed calls for a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to members of the opposite sex. For the purposes of full disclosure, I have long argued that the states should uniformly adopt a civil union standard and leave “marriages” to the respective faiths to define or recognize. At a time when Republicans are finding considerable success on the immigration issue, this decision could give them another cause for the November elections to rally the troops.
For the opinion in the Commonwealth case, click here.