California bankruptcy court rejects federal same-sex marriage ban

[JURIST] The US Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California [official website] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text; JURIST news archive], a federal law barring same-sex marriage [JURIST news archive], is unconstitutional. A legally married same-sex couple filed a joint petition under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code [11 USC § 1301 text] pursuant to § 302(a) which permits the filing of a joint petition by any eligible individual "and such individual debtor's spouse." DOMA defines "spouse" for purposes of federal law as "a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." The US Trustees [official website] moved to dismiss the petition, arguing that the two males were ineligible to file the petition jointly. The couple challenged DOMA on due process and equal protection grounds as established under the Fifth Amendment [text]. The court used a "heightened scrutiny" standard to invalidate the federal statute, but also indicated that DOMA fails rational basis review:

[T]his court concludes that DOMA is gender-biased because it is explicitly designed to deprive the Debtors of the benefits of other important federal law solely on the basis that these debtors are two people married to each other who happen to be men. Further, nothing about the Debtors' gender affects their fitness for bankruptcy protection available to opposite-sex marital partners. Spouses should be treated equally, whether of the opposite-sex variety or the same-sex variety, under heightened scrutiny and the principles announced by the Supreme Court and other lower court rulings discussed above.
Twenty bankruptcy judges from the central district of California signed the opinion holding that "no legally married couple should be entitled to fewer bankruptcy rights than any other legally married couple."

Congressional Democrats introduced [JURIST report] legislation [text] in March to repeal DOMA after House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) [official website] announced [JURIST report] that he is launching a legal advisory group to defend [press release] DOMA. Boehner's proposal came in response to a US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] declaration [JURIST report] that it would no longer defend the constitutionality [press release] of Section 3 of DOMA, which defines marriage for federal purposes as a legal union between one man and one woman, in court cases challenging the provision. Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] acknowledged that the announcement marks a change in policy for the DOJ and the Obama administration, but noted that the change was necessary due to cases pending in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Holder explained that when the DOJ previously defended DOMA it had done so in jurisdictions with binding precedent stating that a permissive standard of review was applicable to laws dealing with sexual orientation. The announcement came just one month after the DOJ filed a brief [JURIST report] with the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] defending the constitutionality of DOMA. The appeal followed a July ruling [JURIST report] by the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts, which found that Section 3 of DOMA violates both the Equal Protection Clause under the Fifth Amendment and State Sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment [text].

 

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