Moral Low Ground

US Government

‘The Moral High Ground’: U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, Bush Appointee, Rules Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional

In a victory for marriage equality advocates, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

The Raw Story reports that Judge Jeffrey White of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, appointed by former President George W. Bush, ruled Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) discriminates against married same-sex couples and violates the Constitution.

Judge White

DOMA was enacted in 1996, under the Clinton administration, and defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. It barred legally married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits and was hailed by defenders of “traditional” marriage as a much-needed measure to protect an institution that is a cornerstone of American history and tradition.

But Judge White’s ruling rejected that assertion.

“The argument that the definition of marriage should remain the same for the definition’s sake is a circular argument, not a rational justification,” he wrote in his decision. “Simply stating what has always been does not address the reasons for it. The mere fact that prior law, history, tradition, the dictionary and the Bible have defined a term does not give that definition a rational basis, it merely states what has been.”

Exactly one year ago, the Obama administration admirably instructed the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. But the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) directed the House General Counsel to defend it in court anyway. Again, Judge White rejected this:

“BLAG argues, but does not explain how denying marriage benefits only to same sex couples will somehow make marriage between opposite sex couples better,” he wrote. “The proffered justification may derive from strongly-held religious or fundamentally traditional beliefs, but still does not provide a legally recognizable rational basis for sustaining a law that actively discriminates against legally married couples. The exclusion of same sex couples from the federal definition of marriage does nothing to encourage or strengthen opposite sex marriages.”

Marriage equality advocates hailed White’s ruling.

“This ruling, the first to come after the Justice Department announced it would no longer defend this discriminatory statute in court, spells doom for DOMA,” Tara Borelli, an attorney for Lambda Legal, told The Raw Story. Lambda Legal, along with the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP, filed the suit on behalf of Karen Golinski, a federal attorney in San Francisco’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who was denied spousal health insurance for her wife under DOMA.  “The Court recognized the clear fact that a law that denies one class of individuals the rights and benefits available to all others because of their sexual orientation violates the constitutional guarantee of equality embodied in the Fifth Amendment,” Borelli said.

“The Court agreed with us that sexual orientation discrimination by the government should receive heightened scrutiny under the constitution,” Borelli added. “It then concluded that DOMA could not meet that standard, and that there was not even a rational justification to deny Karen Golinski the same spousal health care benefits that her heterosexual co-workers receive.”

Golinski, who married her lesbian partner Amy Cunninghis during the short period when such unions were legal in California before Proposition 8 outlawed them in 2008, called White’s ruling “a huge step toward equality.” 

White is the second federal judge to declare DOMA unconstitutional. In 2010, Massachusetts federal Judge Joseph Tauro also ruled that the law violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.

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