Federal Court Promotes Civil Rights for LGBT, State Sovereignty

On Thursday, May 31, 2012 the First Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, sitting in Boston, ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the Constitution and should be struck down. [Decision here.]

Section 3 of DOMA states marriage is between a man and a woman, which means that gay married couples are ineligible for federal benefits, such as tax breaks and Social Security survivor benefits afforded to straight couples, those benefits being based on the marriage state.

In the ruling, the Court says that DOMA interferes with a state’s ability to define marriage, impinging on state sovereignty. The Court stated:

…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.

In striking down Section 3, it would now be possible for same-sex couples to access the same benefits as straight couples. Examples being the ability to: file a joint/married tax return; access the various marriage based deductions and benefits in estate planning; qualify as a married couple when looking to adopt; and qualify for any other federal program, benefit, or responsibility previously denied to them if it was based on marriage in those states that have legalized same-sex marriage. As of this posting, those states are: Connecticut, District of Columbia, Iowa, Maryland (coming into effect shortly), Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont.

The Court, however, did not touch on Section 2, relating to state recognition of same-sex marriages licensed in other states, meaning that states that have yet to recognize same-sex marriage will not be forced to. The ruling is currently on hold, as it is considered highly likely that the Supreme Court will hear the case.

The opportunities that are now being made available to same-sex couples in terms of adoption, marriage-based estate planning, and divorce (when necessary) are exciting and long coming—and the Gowen Group is looking forward to helping same-sex couples exercise these new rights. Contact us to see if we can be of assistance.

Special thanks to our law clerk, Brenna Daugherty, for assistance in writing this post.