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Ninth Cir: Benefit Denial Discriminates Against Gay Couples

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 09, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an Arizona law limiting benefits for same-sex domestic partners violates the Equal Protection Clause. The law, passed in 2009, eliminated health insurance coverage for same-sex partners of state employees.

Arizona initially extended healthcare benefits to opposite-sex and same-sex domestic partners of state employees in 2008. Later that year, Arizona voters approved the Marriage Protection Amendment, which amended the Arizona Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

In, 2009, Governor Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2013, which included a "Section O" statutory provision, redefining "dependants" as "spouses," and thus eliminating coverage for domestic partners.

A group of gay and lesbian state employees filed suit claiming equal protection and substantive due process violations under the Fourteenth Amendment. Each plaintiff, domestic partner, and partner's child, had enrolled in state employee health coverage, and meet the eligibility requirements for coverage. The employees' domestic partners and the domestic partners' children would lose health insurance coverage if new definition of "dependants" were to go into effect.

In its opinion, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that when a state chooses to provide its employees with health benefits, it may not do so in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner that adversely affects particular groups.

The state argued that it passed Section O to address a state budget shortfall, and claimed that eliminating benefits for domestic partnerships applied to both same-sex and opposite-sex partnerships. The court, however, rejected the state's cost-saving assertion because the plaintiffs produced expert analysis showing that the amendment would have a minimal impact on the state's expenditures. The Ninth Circuit further that eliminating domestic partnership benefits cannot be justified under Arizona's "goal" of promoting marriage because same-sex couple, regardless of the availability of benefits, are not permitted to marry in the state.

A spokesman for Gov. Brewer dismissed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the benefits case as "standard fare" for the notoriously liberal court. What do you think? Is this decision an example of liberal pandering, or did the court rule correctly to prevent an equal protection and substantive due process injustice?

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