[JURIST] A federal judge in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text, PDF; JURIST news archive] is unconstitutional because it violates the principles of federalism. The ruling is the fourth federal decision finding that section 3, which denies federal marriage benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples, is an unconstitutional interference in a state’s right to define marriage. The case involved a woman whose same-sex marriage was recognized in New York, but not by the federal government under DOMA. When her spouse died, she was required to pay over $360,000 in federal estate taxes; married couples are exempt from this tax. In her decision, Judge Barbara Jones found that the provision did not pass the lowest level of scrutiny, rational basis review [Cornell LII backgrounder]. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website], which represented the plaintiff, praised the ruling [press release], saying, “This decision adds to what has become an avalanche of decisions that DOMA can’t survive even the lowest level of scrutiny by the courts.” In addition to striking down section 3 of DOMA, the judge ordered the US government to return the estate tax to the plaintiff.
DOMA faces legal challenges across the US. The bipartisan legal advisory group in charge of defending DOMA filed its brief [JURIST report] on Monday defending the constitutionality of section 3 of the act. Last week the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit became the first federal appeals court to rule [JURIST report] that Section 3 is unconstitutional because it interferes with a state’s right to define marriage. In May, a federal district judge in California also struck down section 3 [JURIST report] of DOMA. The Obama administration in March petitioned the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuitfor an expedited en banc review of two test cases on the constitutionality of DOMA after the US District for the Northern District of California ruled that it was unconstitutional [JURIST reports]. The Department of Justice (DOJ), which no longer defends DOMA [JURIST report], has argued that laws affecting LGBT citizens should receive “heightened scrutiny” above rational basis.