(San Francisco, February 22, 2012) – U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White today ruled the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, declaring that the discriminatory federal statute violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equality. Lambda Legal and Morrison & Foerster brought the case on behalf of Karen Golinski, a federal court employee denied spousal health coverage for her wife.
"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," said Tara Borelli, staff attorney in Lambda Legal's Western Regional Office in Los Angeles. "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. The Court agreed with us that sexual orientation discrimination by the government should receive heightened scrutiny under the constitution. 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."
"The demise of this discriminatory statute is long overdue, and the court's ruling today makes that clear," said Rita Lin, associate at Morrison & Foerster. "DOMA produces circumstances where certain federal employees are compensated differently than their coworkers because of their sexual orientation. That's unconstitutional."
Judge White's ruling is the latest victory in a battle that began in 2008, when Golinski, a 20-year employee of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, sought to enroll her wife, Amy Cunninghis, in the employee health plan. It is the first DOMA-related ruling since U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice had determined DOMA was unconstitutional and would no longer defend it, and the majority leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives hired outside counsel to defend the discriminatory statute. A similar ruling holding DOMA unconstitutional in a separate case is on appeal in the 1st Circuit.
Golinski's struggle to enroll her spouse in the family health plan, a benefit routinely granted to her married heterosexual co-workers, travelled a torturous path, including two separate orders by Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski directing that Golinski be allowed to enroll Cunninghis in the health plan, orders ignored by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), citing DOMA. Finally, in April 2011, Lambda Legal and Morrison & Foerster filed an amended complaint directly challenging the constitutionality of DOMA. Judge White heard arguments on this amended complaint on December 16.
"This is a huge relief for Amy and me," Golinski said. "From the beginning, I just wanted nothing more than what my married heterosexual co-workers have, but because of DOMA I couldn't. A law that assesses my marriage as less valuable or important than the marriages of my coworkers is fundamentally unfair and today the court said that it violates the Constitution."