The First Circuit wrote that the federal Defense of Marriage Act intruded on states' rights and that the act's defenders failed to justify its impact on gay couples. But the court acknowledged that 'only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case.'
In its decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act on Thursday, the US appeals court in Boston acknowledged that the underlying legal precedents supporting its opinion are far from clear.
The appeals court nonetheless went ahead and did something no other federal appellate court has done. It ruled that same-sex married couples have a constitutional right to receive federal benefits on an equal basis to benefits received by opposite-sex spouses.
The decision represents another landmark in the struggle for gay rights in the US. But it is not clear - even to the deciding judges in Boston - how the US Supreme Court will ultimately view the case.
"Supreme Court precedent offers some help to each side, but the rationale in several cases is open to interpretation," Judge Michael Boudin wrote in the 28-page decision.
"We have done our best to discern the direction of these precedents, but only the Supreme Court can finally decide this unique case," he said.
Thursday's decision by a unanimous three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit came in three consolidated cases challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.
A powerful affirmation, or a bridge too far?
Gay rights advocates praised the decision, while those supporting the traditional definition of marriage denounced it.
"Society should protect and strengthen marriage, not undermine it," said Dale Schowengerdt, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund.
"In allowing one state to hold the federal government and potentially other states hostage to redefine marriage, the First Circuit attempts a bridge too far," he said.
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, called the decision "a powerful affirmation that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is an unconstitutional and unjust law whose days are numbered."
Mr. Wolfson added: "This ruling will return the federal government to its historic role of respecting marriages performed in the states, without carving out a 'gay exception' that denies thousands of protections."
The First Circuit panel stayed its ruling pending further appeals. Appellate lawyers may now either ask all active judges on the First Circuit to re-hear the case, or file an appeal directly to the US Supreme Court.
DOMA was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by then- President Bill Clinton. It defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman.
The definition applies to more than 1,100 federal benefits, including who can file a joint tax return, and whether a federal worker's same-sex spouse can be covered by government-provided health insurance.
Same-sex couples in Massachusetts filed suit charging the federal law violated their constitutional right to be treated equally compared to heterosexual spouses.
A federal judge in Boston declared DOMA unconstitutional in July 2010. In affirming that decision, the appeals court cited the Supreme Court's evolving equal protection jurisprudence and a series of federalism decisions. …