A bankruptcy court in California has declared that the 1996 law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, increasing pressure against the law.
“In this court’s judgment, no legally married couple should be entitled to fewer bankruptcy rights than any other legally married couple,” wrote Judge Thomas B. Donovan of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California. In an unusual move, 19 other judges — nearly all of the 24 judges of the central district — also signed the decision.
The impact of the opinion could be limited, since the decision of the court is specific to the bankruptcy of the couple, Gene Douglas Balas and Carlos A. Morales. But the other judges’ signatures suggest that as a matter of policy they would rule similarly.
It is not the first blow to the law known as the Defense of Marriage Act. A federal judge in Boston declared the law unconstitutional last July, and that case is working its way through the legal system. The Department of Justice, however, is not driving that appeals process. In February, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in a letter to members of Congress that while the Obama administration would continue to enforce the law, it would no longer defend it in court and that classifications based on sexual orientation should be subjected to a tough legal test intended to block unfair discrimination.
Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, then announced that Congress would defend the law, and that it had hired former Solicitor General Paul Clement to argue on its behalf.
Mr. Balas and Mr. Morales cited Mr. Holder’s letter in their pleadings, and Judge Donovan quoted it approvingly in his 26-page opinion, and stated, “The Holder Letter demonstrates that DOMA cannot withstand heightened scrutiny.”
Mr. Balas and Mr. Morales were legally married under California law, and wanted to file jointly for bankruptcy. The trustee, the federal officials who oversee the bankruptcy process, moved to dismiss their petition under the Defense of Marriage Act. They then asked Judge Donovan to allow them to file jointly, and Monday’s decision was the result.
Adam Winkler, a professor at the law school at the University of California, Los Angeles, called the decision “a powerful statement about the status of gay rights today.” Professor Winkler said, “it shows the effect of Eric Holder’s letter in shaping legal decisions that came after it, almost as if it’s a precedent in the case.”
Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the group that brought the Massachusetts case, said she was not surprised to see another judge agree with the earlier decision, because the law “advances a blatant legal double standard.” Ms. Bonauto added, “In our system of justice, it’s the job of courts to call that out.”
One of those who signed Judge Donovan’s opinion, Judge Sheri Bluebond, said that a signing by other judges is “an unusual occurrence, but it is certainly not unprecedented.”
Judge Bluebond said bankruptcy judges signed on to their colleagues’ decisions when “threshold questions” were brought before one judge and the others in that district “so the bar would know where we stand,” and whether they would be able to file in those courts. While 20 judges signed the opinion and there are 24 in the Central District of California, Judge Bluebond said, “the fact that some judges did not sign on to it does not mean one way or another what their views on that issue are.”
“There could have been procedural reasons or just logistical reasons that they did not sign on,” she said.
It is unclear whether an appeal will be filed. Judge Donovan noted that the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which is leading the Congressional action, requested a brief delay in proceedings while it considered whether to intervene, but that “no further pleadings and no challenge” had ensued.
“The government’s nonresponse to the debtors’ challenges is noteworthy,” Judge Donovan wrote.
A spokesman for Mr. Boehner, Brendan Buck, said the ruling would not be appealed.
“Bankruptcy cases are unlikely to provide the path to the Supreme Court, where we imagine the question of constitutionality will ultimately be decided,” Mr. Buck said. “Obviously, we believe the statute is constitutional in all its applications, including bankruptcy, but effectively defending it does not require the House to intervene in every case, especially when doing so would be prohibitively expensive.”
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