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Court cases challenging DOMA are popping up across the nation with increasing frequency.  Over the last two years, the legislative momentum has grown dramatically. We are now at a point where we can expect at least one of these cases to be heard by the Supreme Court.  The implications of the Supreme Court hearing such a case are enormous. We could be within a year of undefining, as opposed to redefining, marriage.  If we are successful in broadening the federal definition of spouse to include partners of the same sex, many currently unavailable federal benefits will become accessible to our partners.

There are two key cases currently making their way through the courts.

Perry v. Brown (California) 

This is the infamous Prop 8 case formerly known as Perry v Schwarzenegger.  In February of 2012 a three judge panel, in a monumental decision, held that prop 8, which amended the state constitution to disallow same-sex couples from becoming married, was unconstitutional.  The judges found that there was no “rational basis” to restrict same-sex couples from the right to marry.  Judge Reinhardt, who authored the opinion, declared that Prop 8 violated the Equal Protection Clause stating:

“Proposition 8 singles out same-sex couples for unequal treatment by taking away from them alone the right to marry… the People of California may not, consistent with the Federal Constitution, add to their state constitution a provision that has no more practical effect than to strip gays and lesbians of their right to use the official designation that the State and society give to committed relationships, thereby adversely affecting the status and dignity of a disfavored class.”

Golinski v Office of Personnel Management (California)

This case stems from a from a 19-year old woman’s complaint after her application to include her wife under her employer-provided health coverage was denied. While this case may not be as well-known as the Prop 8 case, it is widely considered to be the one with most potential for success.  In July, the Department of Justice filed a writ of certiorari, basically a request that the Supreme Court hear the case. Many expect the Supreme Court will accept despite the fact that these requests are rarely granted.  This is especially noteworthy since the request asks that the Supreme Court hear the case before it makes its way through the remaining lower court appeals.  This unusual writ also includes a request to combine the case with two others challenging DOMA’s constitutionality.

Between the two cases, there is widespread conjecture that Golinski not only has a better chance of being heard by the Supreme Court but also has a better chance of being upheld.  At a conference I recently attended[i], Oregon attorney Cynthia L Barrett speculated that a win in the Brown case could require that the court issue a blanket decision allowing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. The Golinski case may instead only require a decision allowing federal benefits on a state by state basis. The expectation is that the benefits would only be available to those holding a valid sate marriage certificate in one of the six states[ii] that allow gay marriage.

Considering the pace with which states are attempting to pass same-sex marriage legislation, perhaps a Supreme Court decision of this magnitude will serve to further that drive.  In the current environment, where it is no longer possible to stand against same-sex marriage without significant backlash, as evidenced by the recent Chik-Fil-A controversy, we can, finally, imagine an attainable and expedient move towards federal marriage equality.


[i] Barrett, C.L. Ask. Tell. LGBT Estate Planning Developments, Multnomah Athletic Center, Portland, Oregon; OHSU Foundation: June 2012

[ii] Gay marriage is also legal in Washington DC and is pending in the State of Washington.

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