Bench Memos

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The Massachusetts DOMA Rulings—A Summary


Here’s a high-level summary of yesterday’s anti-DOMA rulings by federal district judge Joseph L. Tauro (of Massachusetts).  (I’ll largely reserve commentary for my next posts.)

1.  In Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, Judge Tauro ruled that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act—which provides that the word “marriage” in federal statutes and rules “means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” (and that the word “spouse” refers only to a person in such a union)—violates “the equal protection principles embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.”  (Slip op. at 1-2.) 

Tauro finds it unnecessary to determine whether DOMA should be subjected to strict scrutiny, for he concludes that DOMA “fails to pass constitutional muster even under the highly deferential rational basis test.”  As he sums it up, “this court is convinced that ‘there exists no fairly conceivable set of facts that could ground a rational relationship’ between DOMA and a legitimate government objective.”  (Slip op. at 20-21.)

Tauro first addresses Congress’s stated justifications for enacting DOMA, including encouraging responsible procreation and child-bearing.  (Slip op. at 23-27.)  Tauro notes at the outset that “the government has disavowed Congress’s stated justifications” for DOMA—just as it did in a California case I’ve discussed—and that he will therefore address them “only briefly.”  (Slip op. at 23.)  “This court can readily dispose of the notion that denying federal recognition to same-sex marriages might encourage responsible procreation, because the government concedes that this objective bears no rational relationship to the operation of DOMA.”  (Id. (emphasis added).)

Tauro then turns to the “potential justifications for DOMA that the government now proffers for purposes of this litigation” and finds them irrational.  (Slip op. at 27-38.)  Among other things, he contends that “There can be no dispute that the subject of domestic relations is the exclusive province of the states” and that the “historically entrenched practice of incorporating state law determinations of marital status when they are relevant to federal law” somehow deprives the federal government of any legitimate interest in ever deviating from that practice.  (Slip op. at 28, 31-32.)

2.  In Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Tauro ruled that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act—which, again, merely defines what the words “marriage” and “spouse” mean in federal law—somehow exceeds the scope of federal power.  Among other things, Tauro determines that DOMA “imposes an unconstitutional condition on [a state’s] receipt of federal funding” (slip op. at 27) and that it violates the Tenth Amendment by “intrud[ing] on a core area of state sovereignty—the ability to define the marital status of its citizens (slip op. at 28).


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