On Thursday evening U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken of the Northern District of California ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and a provision of the current California tax code place unconstitutional limits on domestic partners and members of same sex couples, according to Metro Weekly‘s political blog, Poliglot. The laws as they stand, Wilken said, unfairly block same sex partners from participating in the long-term care plan offered by the California Public Employees Retirement System, or CalPERS, violating the state’s equal protection clause.
Wilken is the first federal judge to rule on DOMA since the president declared his support for same sex marriage on May 9. However, she joins a number of federal judges who have ruled against the 1997 law defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, including Massachusetts Judge Joseph Tauro and California Judge Jeffrey S. White.
Poliglot blogger Chris Geidner wrote, “Wilken found that Section 3 of DOMA – the federal definition of ‘marriage’ and ‘spouse’ — ‘violates the equal protection rights of Plaintiff same-sex spouses’ and that subparagraph (C) of Section 7702B(f) of the Internal Revenue Code ’violates the equal protection rights of Plaintiff registered domestic partners.’ Specifically, the court found that ‘both provisions are constitutionally invalid to the extent that they exclude Plaintiff same-sex spouses and registered domestic partners from enrollment in the CalPERS long-term care plan.’”
As part of her ruling, Wilken ordered the State of California not to use DOMA or the tax code in question to deny same sex partners the benefits that heterosexual partners gain under CalPERS. She also ordered the federal government to not disqualify CalPERS’s plan from the beneficial tax treatment for following the court order. The case, Dragovich v. U.S. Department of the Treasury, came about as a result of the fact that even if it wanted to extend benefits to same sex couples, it would be prevented from doing so by the current laws.
Because the Department of Justice declined to defend DOMA, the job fell to the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), currently controlled by the Republican led House, who argued against the domestic partner statute, claiming that “domestic partner” is not necessarily a partner of the same sex and therefore does not fall into a protected class. Wilken insisted that the objection still violated the equal protection clause.
The federal government did defend the tax code, but was overruled.
According to Poliglot, “Finally, Wilken established in Thursday’s ruling that the decision would be stayed, or put on hold, during an appeal of her decision if one is sought.”
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