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
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
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
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
"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
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
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. …