Nancy Gill, et al. v. Office of Personnel Management, et al., (DC MA 07/08/2010)
A Federal district court in the State of Massachusetts, which allows same-sex couples to marry, has held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act violates equal protection principles embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. constitution. The decision paves the way for those individuals who brought the suit to file Federal income tax returns jointly with their spouses to do so.

RIA observation: The suit was brought by seven same-sex couples and three survivors of same-sex couples married in Massachusetts. The individuals sought various Federal benefits available to spouses in heterosexual marriages, such as, social security retirement and survivor benefits. Some individuals also sought the right to file jointly. Various Federal officials and agencies, not including IRS or IRS’s commissioner, were named as defendants. Presumably, pending an appeal by the government, the affected individuals will attempt to amend their open returns to file jointly. How IRS will proceed with them or other same-sex married couples who weren’t parties to the case but who attempt to file jointly on the strength of the case remains to be seen.

Background. In ’96, Congress enacted, and President Clinton signed into law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Section 3 of DOMA defines marriage for purposes of administering Federal law as the “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” It further defines “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”

Individuals sought joint filing status. A number of individuals who brought the case sought the ability to file Federal income taxes jointly with their spouses. A married individual who files jointly generally is subject to a lower tax than an unmarried individual or head of household. (Code Sec. 1) If an individual has filed a separate return for a tax year for which a joint return could have been made by him and his spouse, the couple may file a joint return within three years after the filing of the original returns. (Code Sec. 6013(b)) Should the amended return call for a lower tax due than the original return, the taxpayer may also file an administrative request for a refund of the difference. (Code Sec. 6511(a))

Equal protection analysis and result. The Court observed that the House Report on DOMA identifies four interests which Congress sought to advance through its enactment: (1) encouraging responsible procreation and child-bearing, (2) defending and nurturing the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage, (3) defending traditional notions of morality, and (4) preserving scarce resources.

The court readily disposed of the notion that denying federal recognition to same-sex marriages might encourage responsible procreation, because the government conceded that this objective bears no rational relationship to the operation of DOMA. Also, the court observed that, since DOMA’s enactment, a consensus has developed among the medical, psychological, and social welfare communities that children raised by same-sex parents are just as likely to be well-adjusted as those raised by heterosexual parents.

The court said that Congress’ asserted interest in defending and nurturing heterosexual marriage was not grounded in sufficient factual context for the court to ascertain some relation between it and the classification DOMA effects.

According to the court, what remained, therefore, was the possibility that Congress sought to deny recognition to same-sex marriages in order to make heterosexual marriage appear more valuable or desirable. But to the extent that this was the goal, Congress achieved it only by punishing same-sex couples who exercise their rights under state law. The court stressed that the Constitution does not permit this.

Congress also attempted to justify DOMA by asserting its interest in the preservation of scarce government resources. While the court recognized that conserving the public fisc can be a legitimate government interest, it said that it could discern no principled reason to cut government expenditures at the particular expense of the individuals who brought the case, apart from Congress’ desire to express its disapprobation of same-sex marriage.

The government entities (government) being sued in this case disavowed Congress’s stated justifications for DOMA and instead offered different justifications for DOMA. In essence, the government argued that the Constitution permitted Congress to enact DOMA as a means to preserve the status quo, pending the resolution of a socially contentious debate taking place in the states over whether to sanction same-sex marriage. Had Congress not done so, according to the argument, the definitions of “marriage” and “spouse” under Federal law would have changed along with each alteration in the status of same-sex marriage in any given state because, before DOMA, Federal law simply incorporated each state’s marital status determinations.

The Court, however, found that the government’s current justifications for DOMA failed to ground a rational relationship between the classification employed and a legitimate governmental objective. The government conceded that Congress does not have the authority to place restrictions on the states’ power to issue marriage licenses. But its argument assumes that Congress has some interest in a uniform definition of marriage for purposes of determining federal rights, benefits, and privileges. The court said there is no such interest. It noted that the Federal government has fully embraced variations and inconsistencies in state marriage laws by recognizing as valid for Federal purposes any heterosexual marriage which has been declared valid pursuant to state law.

The court noted that the passage of DOMA marked the first time that the federal government ever attempted to legislatively mandate a uniform federal definition of marriage. The court said that the states alone have the authority to set forth eligibility requirements as to familial relationships and the federal government cannot, therefore, have a legitimate interest in disregarding those family status determinations properly made by the states.

Accordingly, the court found that DOMA lacks a rational basis to support it. Indeed, according to the Court, Congress undertook this classification for the one purpose that lies entirely outside of legislative bounds, to disadvantage a group of which it disapproves. And such a classification, the Constitution clearly will not permit, said the court.