The 1st Circuit today held that the Defense of Marriage Act’s denial of federal benefits to married same-sex couples is unconstitutional. Massachusetts v. US Department of Health and Human Services (1st Cir 05/31/2012).
The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Section 3 prevents same-sex married couples from filing joint tax returns, prevent a surviving spouse from collecting Social Security survivor benefits, and prevents federal employees from sharing medical benefits with same-sex spouses.
The trial court held that DOMA Section 3 is unconstitutional; the 1st Circuit affirmed.
The court’s decision surveys equal protection and federalism issues and concludes that “governing precedents under both heads combine – not to create some new category of ‘heightened scrutiny,’ …, but rather to require a closer than usual review based in part on discrepant impact among married couples and in part on the importance of state interests in regulating marriage.”
Thus the court gave less deference to, and “closer scrutiny of government action touching upon minority group interests and of federal action in areas of traditional state concern.”
The court concluded that denial of federal benefits to same-sex married couples “has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest.”
The court stayed its mandate, thus extending the trial court’s stay, in anticipation of the losing parties seeking certiorari in the US Supreme Court.
This is a decision, purportedly based on the US Constitution, that essentially avoids making an explicit connection to the text of the Constitution.
The idea is that states regulate marriage, the federal government may have something to say in this regard, but the reasons behind the federal government’s actions didn’t have enough oomph. No, there’s no 10th amendment violation, and no violation of the Spending Clause. And no, there’s no “strict scrutiny” going on. And no “new category of ‘heightened scrutiny.'” But wait, let’s give the legislation “closer scrutiny.”
I’m no fan of DOMA, but it’s not really clear to me what this court is doing.
[By the way, similar DOMA issues are pending in the 9th Circuit.]