Federal Judge Rules the Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional. Will It Stick?

Yesterday, Massachusetts federal district Judge Joseph Tauro declared that gay men and women recognized as married by their individual states should have access to the same federal benefits as heterosexual married couples. In doing so, he declared Article III of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, unconstitutional. The controversial decision posits the question for both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage of how to best support their cases and what the rulings, now under review by the Obama administration, will bring in the long term.

Tauro ruled on two cases, one filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and the other by Gays & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a New England–based advocacy organization. His decisions apply only to Massachusetts residents. In those rulings, Tauro wrote that DOMA, enacted by Congress in 1996, violated the 10th Amendment of the Constitution by encroaching upon the state's right to define marriage. It also violated the Constitution's equal-protection clause. In essence, since the federal law does not recognize same-sex marriage (though it's been legal in Massachusetts since 2004), Massachusetts would have to discriminate against same-sex couples by denying them the federal benefits straight married couples receive.

Though the ruling may be a major victory for gay couples in Massachusetts, several law professors and supporters of gay-marriage are afraid the decisions will be appealed. Jack Balkin, a law professor and political and legal blogger, writes that though he supports same-sex marriage, the arguments of Tauro's decisions are "at war with each other" in both emphasizing a need for state sovereignty but also the federal government's requirement to regulate family life through federal programs and benefits. Law professor and blogger Steven Taylor writes that were the 10th Amendment ruling the only one, it may "have the effect of reinforcing the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage around the country," by "placing public policy over marriage in the hands of the state." He hypothesizes that the equal-protection argument will likely prove more successful in future cases, specifically those dealing with same-sex couples who move from a state that recognizes gay marriage to one that does not.

Tauro's ruling poses a dilemma for some conservatives, who often turn to the 10th Amendment when fighting for gun rights, school prayer, and in opposing the Obama administration's health-care reform and Wall Street bailouts. In an blog post titled "Why Teapartiers Should Oppose DOMA," The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan writes that "The right is hoist on their own federalist petard and will now have to choose whether states' rights or marriage inequality is more important to them." Whatever happens, Tauro's ruling is a stir of life in an otherwise slow-moving debate on same-sex marriage: activists on both sides of the issue are still waiting for a ruling in California's Proposition 8 case, which challenges the state's ban on gay marriage. The L.A. Times reports that false rumors of a verdict from U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn R.Walker drew disappointed crowds to San Francisco. And as with any new decision the lasting impacts of Tauro's ruling remain unknown (though some are speculating on the backlash).

The Obama administration is now reviewing the ruling to decide whether the federal government will file an appeal. In June, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said that though President Obama wants a legislative appeal of DOMA, "until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system."