First Circuit Strikes Down Defense of Marriage Act but Stays Tax Remedies

Article excerpt

The First Circuit Court of Appeals on May 31 declared part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, upholding a Massachusetts federal district court decision. The appeals court held that the act's denial of federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

At issue was Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, P.L. 104-199 (DOMA), which defines "marriage" for purposes of federal law as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."

The First Circuit, like the lower court, focused on two aspects of DOMA: (1) that it prevents same-sex married couples from filing joint federal tax returns, thereby preventing them from benefiting from the lower tax burden available to most married couples who file jointly, and (2) that it prevents the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage from collecting Social Security survivor benefits.

The plaintiffs in the several cases combined in the lower court were lawfully married same-sex couples. They had filed amended joint returns and requested refunds based on their lower tax liabilities as joint filers.

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The lower court found that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. The court held that the government had no basis for denying benefits to same-sex married couples and that Congress had no legitimate interest in applying a uniform definition of marriage for purposes of determining federal rights, benefits, and privileges.

The district court also ordered specific remedies for the plaintiffs' tax claims (Gill v. …