[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion] that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text; JURIST news archive], which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional because it interferes with a state’s right to define marriage. The decision is the first judgment by an appeals court on the law. The court stressed that the decision did not create a national right to same-sex marriage [JURIST backgrounder], but only required the federal government to recognize those marriages that are performed legally within a state. In its decision, the court ruled that Section 3 of DOMA violates the principles of federalism:
Many Americans believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and most Americans live in states where that is the law today. One virtue of federalism is that it permits this diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage. Under current Supreme Court authority, Congress’ denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest.
The court’s decision did not address the provision of DOMA that allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state. The ruling of the court invalidated Section 3 of DOMA, but the judgment was stayed in anticipation of an appeal.
The court heard arguments [JURIST] on the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA in April. Although the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] filed its initial brief in the case in January 2011, it announced a month later that it would no longer defend DOMA [JURIST reports]. Later that month, the DOJ withdrew from the appeal [letter to court text, PDF]. When they declined to pursue this case further, House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) DOMA defense group [JURIST report] took over the defense. As a portend for future legal battles, the DOJ argued that laws affecting LGBT citizens should receive “heightened scrutiny” above rational basis [Cornell LII backgrounder]. The case was on appeal from rulings by Judge Joseph Tauro of the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts in two separate cases, one brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and another by an advocacy group representing married LGBT citizens [JURIST reports]. Judge Joseph Tauro ruled in both cases that DOMA’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman is unconstitutional because it interferes with the states’ right to define marriage [JURIST report]. The Obama administration in March petitioned the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for an expedited en banc review [JURIST report] of two test cases on the constitutionality of DOMA.