Late last week, you may have seen headlines about a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit who ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. For anyone in favor of equal justice under law (and opposed to DOMA) this was good news. Unfortunately, the ruling is extremely limited. For your convenience, we’ve answers a few of the questions we've heard about the decision.
Q: What happened?
A: The case involved Brad Levenson, a public defender in the federal court system whose employer -- the Office of the Federal Public Defender -- denied his husband spousal health insurance benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Rather than simply accepting this state of affairs, Levenson filed a complaint with his employer -- the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit heard the case and issued a ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional, finding no rational basis to deny benefits to some legally married spouses and not to others.
Q: So does that mean DOMA is no longer in effect, at least within the states comprising the Ninth Circuit?
A: No, DOMA is still in effect there and everywhere else throughout the country.
Q: Why is that? Doesn't a circuit court opinion bind all federal courts within that circuit?
A: Yes, a circuit court opinion usually does just that. Normally, a circuit court opinion comes either from a three-judge panel or from all of the circuit judges. But this opinion came from just one judge, and it was more like an internal, administrative employment dispute resolution opinion.
Q: Why isn't it a regular court opinion?
A: Because the married couple claiming discrimination did not go to court and sue the federal government for the spousal benefits. Instead, Levenson, in his status as an aggrieved employee of the Office of the Federal Public Defender, filed an administrative complaint with his employer.
So Judge Reinhardt did not issue his opinion in his role as a federal appellate judge deciding the appeal of a lower court's legal holding in a conflict between two parties. Instead, he was acting in his capacity as the designated administrative decision-maker for the Ninth Circuit's Standing Committee on Federal Public Defenders.
Q: Circuit Court opinions are binding on lower courts in that circuit. Who is bound by Judge Reinhardt's decision on DOMA?
A: This is an internal administrative ruling by an employer about one employee's benefits. It certainly helps Brad Levenson and his husband. But in his capacity as the administrative decision-maker who was designated to hear Levenson's case, Judge Reinhardt doesn't hold a hierarchically superior position over the next decision-maker in the next employment dispute in the Office of the Federal Public Defenders within the Ninth Circuit.
Q: There was another case last month where a Ninth Circuit judge ordered the government to provide benefits to a same-sex spouse. Will that have more of an impact?
A: Not at all. It was another case where the judge was acting as the decision-maker in an employment dispute resolution. It involved a Ninth Circuit employee covered by the employment dispute resolution plan specifically applicable to Ninth Circuit employees, as opposed to the one applicable to members of the Federal Public Defender system.
In fact, when Judge Reinhardt issued his decision last week, he explicitly said that he was not bound by the January ruling, because two different employee dispute plans were involved. That shows how these decisions have little to no value as binding precedent.
Q: Is either case going to be appealed to the Supreme Court?
A: No, because these employment dispute resolutions are not regular Circuit Court opinions released as part of a criminal or civil judicial proceeding.
Q: Has anything changed for the widow who is denied her late wife's Social Security pension benefits, or for the American man whose non-citizen husband is threatened with deportation?
A: No. DOMA still denies gays and lesbians the more than one thousand federal rights and responsibilities that come with marriage. Last week’s news doesn't change that.
Q: What about a legislative remedy instead of a judicial one? Can Congress repeal DOMA?
A: Yes, definitely. President Obama is already on board and has called for repeal of this hateful law. We all need to work hard as hard as ever to get Congress to act.