Thursday, July 8, 2010

Defense of Marriage Act Declared Unconstitutional

The big legal news of the day is that Judge Tauro of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts (Boston) declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA"), 1 USC sec. 7, unconstitutional. The case is styled Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, et al. (link opens .pdf opinion). The case was brought by same-sex spouses married under Massachusetts law. The Court held that "DOMA as applied to Plaintiffs violates the equal protection principles embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution."
On the federal level, DOMA limits the recognition of marital rights to heterosexual spouses. The Court held that Congress' reasons for enacting the law bore no rational relationship to the goals it set. The Court also expressed a strong sentiment that the federal government should stay out of the business of defining marriage because that is the traditional and exclusive purview of the States.
I recently wrote about same-sex spouses and some of the special issues they face in bankruptcy, such as that DOMA has been interpreted to bar such spouses from filing joint bankruptcy petitions which, among other things, increases the overall cost of bankruptcy. That may change now, and I would like to bring a test case if presented with the right clients. Judge Tauro's opinion is not binding on the bankruptcy court and it may yet be appealed. However, it broke new ground and will carry considerable weight when used to support a challenge to a joint bankruptcy petition on behalf of same-sex spouses.