Was the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Right to Strike Down the Defense of Marriage Act?

The court in Boston found the 1996 federal law to be unconstitutional, setting the issue up for possible Supreme Court review.

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The First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston today declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The federal law, adopted in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton, prevents same sex couples from receiving federal benefits like the ability to jointly file federal taxes. The opinion, written for the unanimous three-judge panel by Appeals Court Judge Michael Boudin, said that while his court does not welcome striking down the federal law, it found no legal precedent to continue denying such benefits to same-sex couples.

“As with the women, the poor and the mentally impaired, gays and lesbians have long been the subject of discrimination,’’ he wrote. “In reaching our judgment, we do not rely upon the charge that DOMA’s hidden but dominant purpose was hostility to homosexuality. The many legislators who supported DOMA acted from a variety of motives, one central and expressed aim being to preserve the heritage of marriage as traditionally defined over centuries of Western civilization.’’

[Join the debate: Is the Defense of Marriage Act Constitutional?]

Boudin wrote that while many Americans consider marriage to be between one man and one woman, continuing to deny same-sex couples federal benefits “has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest.”

In 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration would cease defending the Defense of Marriage Act in U.S. Courts because discrimination based on sexual orientation failed to meet a “more heightened standard of scrutiny.”

Gay marriage is currently legal in Massachusetts and five other states, plus the District of Columbia.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

Boudin’s opinion said, “We have done our best to discern the direction” of court precedents, “but only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.”

The appeals court decision primes the issue to be taken up by the Supreme Court, which may also be called to review Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment in California restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. The California law was declared unconstitutional by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but proponents of Prop 8 have requested a panel of judges to examine the decision.

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