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Federal judge rules denial of health coverage to same-sex spouse unconstitutional

A federal judge has deemed unconstitutional the government’s denial of healthcare coverage and other benefits to the same-sex spouse of a Los Angeles public defender, calling into question the validity of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt said the federal government’s refusal to grant spousal benefits to Tony Sears, the husband of deputy federal public defender Brad Levenson, amounted to unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.

“Because there is no rational basis for denying benefits to the same-sex spouses of [Federal Public Defender] employees while granting them to the opposite-sex spouses of FPD employees, I conclude that the application of [federal statutes] so as to reach that result is unconstitutional,” Reinhardt wrote in an order to the U.S. Courts administration to submit Levenson’s benefits election form. The ruling was issued Monday and published Wednesday.

“The denial of federal benefits to same-sex spouses cannot be justified simply by a distaste for or disapproval of same-sex marriage or a desire to deprive same-sex spouses of benefits available to other spouses in order to discourage them from exercising a legal right afforded them by a state,” Reinhardt wrote.

Neither Reinhardt’s ruling nor one in a similar case involving a 9th Circuit employee issued by appeals court Chief Judge Alex Kozinski establishes precedent that would have to be followed by courts hearing other challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act or the Federal Employee Health Benefits Act, which seek to deny federal benefits to same-sex spouses.

Reinhardt and Kozinski handled the respective complaints from Levenson and from 9th Circuit staff lawyer Karen Golinski in their capacity as dispute resolution officials within the federal judiciary, whose employees are prohibited from suing in federal court. Other federal employees denied benefits for same-sex spouses could sue under Title VII and other anti-discrimination statutes.

With same-sex marriage legal or recognized in only a handful of states and on hold in California since the passage of Proposition 8 in November, the number of cases similar to Levenson’s is probably small. Reinhardt said he didn’t know whether similar appeals had been raised by federal employees elsewhere in the judicial system. Still, legal scholars see Reinhardt’s reading of the Defense of Marriage Act as a bellwether on the constitutionality of that law and potentially others that seek to discourage or discriminate against homosexual partnerships.

“I think that this is a very important case in terms of the application of the Constitution to sexual orientation discrimination, especially with regard to partners,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC  Irvine law school.

While noting that Reinhardt’s ruling doesn’t directly affect the issue of gay marriage, Chemerinsky said he considered it “a key case toward creating a constitutional right for benefits for same-sex partners.”

Levenson, who married Sears on July 12 during last year’s five-month window when gay marriage was legal in California, applied for spousal benefits three days later but was denied by the 9th Circuit Executive Office on grounds that the Defense of Marriage Act and the Federal Employee Health Benefits Act prohibit extending benefits to same-sex spouses.

Levenson appealed to the 9th Circuit’s Standing Committee on Federal Public Defenders, which Reinhardt chairs, with the argument that his office’s dispute resolution plan expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed by the Republican-controlled Congress 13 years ago and signed into law by President Clinton. The act identified three objectives: defending and nurturing the institution of traditional, heterosexual marriage; defending traditional notions of morality; and preserving scarce government resources.

In his 15-page ruling, Reinhardt debunked the first two objectives, stating that “gay people will not be encouraged to enter into marriages with members of the opposite sex by the government’s denial of benefits to same-sex spouses.” On the cost-saving objective, Reinhardt deemed the potential savings from discriminating against gays “insignificant” and “founded upon a prohibited or arbitrary ground.”

-- Carol J. Williams

Comments () | Archives (55)

LA Times - with all the more important issues out there like the ECONOMY which leads to unemployment, more job loss and more foreclosures, do you have constantly go on about this?? The residents of California have voted, deal with it or get out!!

Marie, I think the L.A. Times can handle covering more than one story at a time.

I'm glad that they're covering it, and obviously, people are interested in reading about it because every time they do a story about same-sex relationships, the reactions are intense!

Maybe you should ask yourself why you're so bothered by it. You should also educate yourself on how our government works. "The people have voted" is not the final verdict. We have a judiciary branch of government for a reason.

While I don't approve of discrimination against gays and lesbians, I do have qualms with the government giving benefits to married persons. Is this not a form of discrimination against single people or those, like myself, who feel no need to get government approval for a heterosexual, co-habitating relationship? When my partner dies, I'll get no death benefits. Had the movement for gay equality not gone down the road of marriage and retained its focus on civil liberties, in 40 years me and my partner and a legally married couple might be in the same boat. Maybe we'd get no government benefits. Or maybe the government would leave it up to individuals to choose who gets their benefits. Then a wife could choose to leave her Social Security to her husband, for example, and my male partner could choose to leave his benefits to me. Or, a single woman or man could give their benefits to whomever they choose. As it stands now, if you die legally single, all the money you earned through Social Security stays with the government. That's not fair. The US needs to start letting citizens, as individuals, decide what to do with government benefits. Let's focus less on "marriage equality," which just widens the circle of privileged persons, and more on civil liberties.

Just another attempt by the GLBT reprobates to re-define marriage and elimibnate any laws banning same-sex relationships. These gays and lesbians always cry foul and use the reprobate judges to get their way, noth considering their immoral and deviate lifestyle as contrary to nature. Why should the government be involved in sexual preference. You have to be demented and insane to equate heterosexual marriage as equal to gay marriage because it is not, cannot, and never will be. At best, it's a counrerfeit of what nature intended. You want benefits, then do what's right..marry a man if you are a woman, and marry a woman if you are a man...as God intended from the beginning...but we know better than God...so we think...so did the people in Sodom...."Till the fire came and destroyed them all."

So, Marie, you'd rather that the Times not report stories just because they conflict with a vote or the rule of law? I guess the Times should never print an anti-abortion story, since abortion is legal in the United States. Sounds good to me. Also, the marriage issue is all about money and, so, it is related to the American economy.

Judge Reinhardts decisions are probably reversed more than any other judge in the 9th Circuit. Here is another over-reaching attempt to legislate from the bench. He should go back and re-read the Constitution and not try to re-write it.

Dear Marie, you bet we will "deal with it" and stay here as long as it takes to change the law once and for all. This issue is every bit as worthy of mass media attention as the economic crisis. Voters against sexual orientation-based discrimination, which is rooted in ignorant fear, will raise the argument again much more vociferously next time and we WILL effect a different result: Defeat of Pro-Prop.8 stupidity. Pro Prop. 8-ers wasted their energy and money on this one and, sadly, are presumably raising a whole new generation of short-sited fear mongers.

Marie, the courts have ruled twice on prohibiting gay marriage and are about to do it again. Deal with it or get out!

News and government aren't zero-sum games, Marie. Discussion of ongoing civil rights issues doesn't take away from coverage of the economy, foreclosures, or other things -- and government (including court) consideration of these issues doesn't preclude government consideration of measures to improve our economic situation. As then-candidate Obama said, "The president should be able to focus on more than one thing at a time," and I think that can easily be extended to other parts of the government, as well as news and people at large.

And, yes, the people of California have voted. The issue, however, is not dead. Hearings on Prop 8 in the California Supreme Court are scheduled for a month from today.

Sorry Marie, homosexuals have only just begun to fight for equal civil rights. We are tax paying, American citizens and we will have the same rights as Britney, John McCain, and Ronald Reagen (all divorced Americans!).

Mary- The LA Times is not wasting its time on these issues. These issues are important to many of us, and helping us stay informed, I thank them for it. True there is a lot of despair in this country, but most of it was created by your right wing obstructionist friends. Just because a few religious zealots can put a distasteful and discriminatory measure, forcing their views upon the rest of us, inserting religion into government, on the ballot does not mean it is right. The Ninth Circuit got it right. DOMA will be repealed or overturned. As far as prop. 8, it will go down as well. YOU GET OVER IT!!! Freedom for all!!

You know, civil rights are a tad more important than most anything else. Yes, they do have to go on about this. Voters don't get to take away the rights of anyone for any reason. How about we vote to take YOUR rights away? Would you stand by and "deal with it"?

The last paragraph of the article is brilliant, and it really highlights the main failure of anti-gay discrimination: blocking benefits to same-sex couples isn't going to make gay people marry someone of the opposite sex!

Marie: If the residents of California voted to deny equal rights to black people, or to jewish people, or to Catholics, we wouldn't "deal with it or get out." Prop 8 was an outrage, and it deserves to be fought and overturned.

The people have voted. Stop ramming this stuff down our throats. How many more Times layoffs do you people need to see the will of the people?

I am not a lawyer or a legal professor, but does the constitution actually provide rights for sexual orientation? I know I have heard right specifically spelled out for race, religion, and sex. Where is this at? It is frustrating to when you hear something is deemed unconstitutional and they don't mention specifically in the constitition it says that. I am just trying to understand it.

Marie ignorantly stated - "LA Times - with all the more important issues out there like the ECONOMY which leads to unemployment, more job loss and more foreclosures, do you have constantly go on about this?? The residents of California have voted, deal with it or get out!!"

Civil rights are not up for vote to be potentially overturned by the majority. That's according to the US Constitution and the California Constitution. If you don't like THAT... deal with it or get out.

Marie, The next proposition that the residents of California could vote on might be to deny people with the name Marie the right to vote. If the majority approves it, you loose your vote. Doesn't sound fair to me, even if the people of California vote it in. The most sacred business of the judges is not to ratify the will of the majority but to protect the minority from its tyranny.

Marie, read the front page. The economy IS being covered. Perhaps people also care about the basic rights of citezens,

Apparently Marie doesn't know how to read nor does she seem to be aware that newspapers have specific departments to cover specific topics. It's interesting news and I believe it was former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who indicated that in a case challenging the FEDERAL DOMA that it could be overturned on grounds of due process violations to the FEDERAL constitution - & Marie just so you & other people understand state DOMA will only hold up so long as there is a federal one because state DOMA's will then be subject to the faith and full credit clause of the FEDERAL constitution rendering them a nullity.

The LA Times is a respected paper that is read nationwide, not just in CA. Guess what else... ::gasp:: gay people read it too! Honestly, I'd love to see reporting on religious issues stopped as well, as that offends me, but it's just not going to happen. Unfortunately for some, the Times has a responsibility to ALL it's readers, not just a certain demographic. Some posters may not care about gay issues, but as long as my country continues to consider me and others like me second class citizens, we will always care! EQUALITY is just as important as the ECONOMY. If you don't like it, don't read the paper, because homosexuals aren't going away. As long as we're discriminated against, we will make the news. LA Times, please continue giving quality journalism to people NATIONWIDE regarding issues they care about.

If this goes up it will get overturned by the S Ct so fast that the ink won't be dry on the pleadings filed with the S Ct. (I mean the real S Ct - the one in DC.)

Kennedy won't go along with this and he is the swing vote.

Thomas, Scalia etc will kick this out and overturn it in a heartbeat. Their underlying theory of Constitutional interpetation is if it didn't exist in 1788 or 1791, it doesn't exist now.

Ergo, marriage to a person of the same sex did not exist in 1788 or 1791 and therefore it is not protected under the Constitution. End of dscussion as far as they are concerned.

Kennedy wil be influenced by the fact that 44+/- states have explicitly prohibited gay marriage and therefore such a thing has not been accepted by the majority of the US.

(And dont' try to analogize it to race. Racial discrimination by the government had to be addressed in a seperate amendment (13-15th amendments,)

Yes, the ECONOMY is important. However are HUMAN RIGHTS
not as important?
It's clear where your politics and religious views (lie)
Those of us who continue to fight for the same rights accorded
heterosexual couples have no intention of leaving.
We are unfairly taxed because of our single status and in large measure are responsible for the tax revenues which support the education and welfare of children in this country without the benefits
awarded straight married couples. What is fair about that?
The people in California did indeed vote on Prop.8 funded by the "Religious Right" organizations which enjoy a tax free status.
Whatever happened to the separation of church and state as
defined in the constitution?
They have no business interfering in civil matters and using untaxed income to further their very un Christian agendas.

So we're just supposed to succumb to what Jefferson called the "tyranny of the majority" and go slinking back into the closet? Not a chance.

Tina, you left out the fact that stable, committed relationships are deemed a benefit to the whole society. It's not Gay people's fault if you choose not to marry, but to forego the 1001 benefits and rights that marriage affords.

Let's hope your boyfriend doesn't have an accident on the way home tomorrow, because if he ends up in the hospital, his parents will have the right to decide his treatment, not you.

The error in your thinking is that marriage means "getting the government's approval." As heterosexuals the government won't question your right to marry, approve or disapprove of you; it's automatic as long as you're Straight. What marriage is about is protecting your loved one.

You have a right to forego it, but consider the consequences. If Mom and Dad don't want you in the hospital room, you don't get in. I've seen this hundreds of times, with invariably tragic results. If your boyfriend dies and you own a house together, Mom and Dad get half your house. You end up a victim twice, because your boyfriend "felt no need" to protect you. He thought marriage was about "getting the government's approval," not Mom and Dad stealing half your furniture and all of his money.

Jay, to answer your question, yes, the California Constitution and the U.S. Constitution both explicitly guarantee equal protection to ALL citizens. It's worded that way because the authors were wise enough to know that they could not spell out every possible suspect class explicitly. But by requiring that everyone receive the same treatment under the law, they're covered. So, if you want to deny rights to gays and lesbians, all you have to do is deprive everyone else of those same rights. The constitution does not explicitly give us the right to a civil marriage, it explicitly gives us the SAME right to civil marriage as a heterosexual has. It really is that simple.

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