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Karen Golinski Wins: Will DOMA Ruling Prompt Litigation Spree?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 24, 2012 9:01 AM

A Northern California federal judge ruled on Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. For California's same-sex couples, however, the ruling will not provide immediate relief.

Karen Golinski, a staff attorney for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, sued the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to obtain health insurance benefits for her spouse, Amy Cunninghis. While same-sex marriages are still on hold in California pending the outcome of further appeals in the state's Proposition 8 battle, Golinski and Cunninghis were legally married during the brief period in 2008 when the state permitted same-sex marriages.

Golinski sought a determination from the court that DOMA Section 3, as applied to her, violates the United States Constitution by refusing to recognize lawful marriages when determining benefits for federal employees, and claimed that she was unconstitutionally denied legal protections and benefits under federal law that would be available to her if she were a heterosexual with a opposite-sex spouse.

Since the Justice Department announced last year that it would no longer defend DOMA, House Speaker John Boehner enlisted an attorney to argue in favor of DOMA on behalf of a House of Representatives group called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG).

In a 43-page opinion, Judge Jeffrey White ruled DOMA is unconstitutional as applied to Golinski because it "treats gay men and lesbians differently on the basis of their sexual orientation" without any legal basis, noting that "the imposition of subjective moral beliefs of a majority on a minority cannot provide a justification."

BLAG has not announced whether it will appeal Judge White's decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The fact that Karen Golinski argued that DOMA is unconstitutional as applied to her, rather than facially invalid, is important. The bad news for legally-married federal employees who want federal benefits for their same-sex spouses is that Judge White did not strike down DOMA Section 3; he just ruled that it was unconstitutional as applied to Golinski. That means that similarly-situated people may have to sue to demand benefits, and the courts will likely be flooded with DOMA-based lawsuits.

The good news for those couples -- and the attorneys that represent them -- is that they now have a well-reasoned opinion detailing how DOMA Section 3 violates the Equal Protection Clause. For the lawyers, in particular, the hard work is already done.

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