The DOMA Legal Challenges

On June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that denies legally married same-sex couples over 1,100 protections and responsibilities of marriage, is unconstitutional. By striking down Section 3 of DOMA, the Supreme Court has affirmed that all loving and committed couples who marry deserve equal legal respect and treatment. It marks an enormous victory for equal justice under the law and ends DOMA’s two-tiered system for marriage, which for over 16 years has forced the government to pick and choose among marriages and create a "gay exception" that only caused pain, uncertainty, and financial harm.

Over the past several years, DOMA has been challenged dozens of times - and several cases worked their way through the Courts. Ultimately, the Supreme Court heard Windsor v. United States, ruling in June 2013 that DOMA is unconstitutional. Here are the details on each of the cases: 

Case Granted Supreme Court Review

Windsor v. United States

> November 9, 2010: The case is filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Edith Windsor (pictured left).

> June 6, 2012: U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones rules in the case that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.
 
> October 18, 2012: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York upholds Judge Jones' ruling, finding in the case that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. 

> December 7, 2012: The U.S. Supreme Court announces it will hear Windsor v. United States in 2013.

> June 26, 2013: After hearing oral arguments in the case on March 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision, ruling that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. 
 

Cases Facing Potential Supreme Court Review

Gill v. OPM

> March 3, 2009: The case is filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) on behalf of several Massachusetts couples, including Nancy Gill and Marcelle Letourneau (pictured left).

> July 8, 2010: U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro rules in the case that Section 3 of DOMA violates the equal protection principles in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The case henceforth is consolidated with Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

> May 31, 2012: U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upholds Judge Tauro's ruling, finding in the case that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. Two of the three judges who signed the ruling, including the author, Judge Michael Boudin, were appointed by Republican presidents.

> Requests for Supreme Court review filed by: Department of Justice, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory GroupGay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, 15 U.S. States.

> June 26, 2013: The U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. The decision extends to Gill v. O.P.M.
 
Massachusetts v. HHS

Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


> July 8, 2009: The case is filed by Massachuetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (pictured left).

> July 8, 2010: U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro rules in the case that Section 3 of DOMA violates the equal protection principles in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The case henceforth is consolidated with Gill v. O.P.M.

> May 31, 2012: U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upholds Judge Tauro's ruling, finding in the case that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. Two of the three judges who signed the ruling, including the author, Judge Michael Boudin, were appointed by Republican presidents.

> Requests for Supreme Court review filed by: Department of Justice, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group.

> June 26, 2013: The U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. The decision extends to Massachusetts.  

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Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management

Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management


> January 20, 2010: The case is filed by Lambda Legal on behalf of Karen Golinski and Amy Cunninghis(pictured left).

> February 22, 2012: U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White rules in the case that DOMA violate the U.S. Constitution.

> Request for Supreme Court review filed by: Department of Justice.

> June 26, 2013: The U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. The decision extends to Golinski. 

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Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management

Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management


> November 9, 2010: The case is filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders on behalf of married same-sex couples and widowers in Connecticut, Vermont and NEw Hampshire, including Joanne Pedersen and Ann Meitzen(pictured left).

> July 31, 2012: U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa Bryant rules in the case that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional because it violates the Fifth Amendment's promise of equal protection under the law.

> Requests for Supreme Court review filed by: Department of Justice and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

> June 26, 2013: The U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. The decision extends to Pedersen.

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Gill v. Office of Personnel Management

  • Gill v. O.P.M. was filed on March 3, 2009 on behalf of married couples and widowers in Massachusetts
  • The case has a central argument: “DOMA Section 3 violates the federal government's promise of equal protection of the laws contained in the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution. It singles out just one class of marriages for disrespect and then denies those same-sex couples every single legal protection and responsibility otherwise available to married couples. … DOMA represents an extraordinary intrusion by the federal government into marriage law, an area of law that has always belonged to the states. We believe there is no adequate justification for the federal government's unprecedented non-recognition of valid state marriages.”
  • On July 8, 2010, District Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that Section 3 of DOMA violates the equal protection principles in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • On May 31, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled on Gill v. O.P.M., deciding that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional. Judge Michael Boudin, a Republican-appointed judge, wrote the ruling. He wrote, “One virtue of federalism is that it permits diversity of governance based on local choice, but this applies as well to the states that have chosen to legalize same-sex marriage."
  • On June 30, 2012, Speaker of the House John Boehner filed a writ of certiorari on behalf of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Gill v. O.P.M., advocating in defense of DOMA. 
  • On July 3, 2012, the Department of Justice filed a writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Gill v. O.P.M., affirming in the request that the Justice Department supports lower court rulings that found DOMA's Section 3 unconstitutional. 
  • On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. The decision extends to Gill v. O.P.M.

Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services

  • On July 8, 2009, Coakley filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of DOMA’s Section 3. 
  • One year later, Judge Joseph Tauro issued a decision in the case, on the same day he released a ruling on Gill v. O.P.M. Tauro ruled that DOMA’s Section 3 violates the 10th amendment, falling outside of Congress’ authority.
  • On May 31, 2012, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Tauro’s ruling, arguing that “Congress’ denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married in Massachusetts has not been adequately supported by any permissible federal interest.”
  • On June 30, 2012, Speaker of the House John Boehner filed a writ of certiorari on behalf of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Gill v. O.P.M., advocating in defense of DOMA. BLAG also requested a stay in Pedersen v. O.P.M., explaining that the outcome of other concurrent DOMA cases would sufficiently resolve Pedersen. 
  • On July 3, 2012, the Department of Justice filed a writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Massachusetts v. HHS, affirming in the request that the Justice Department supports lower court rulings that found DOMA's Section 3 unconstitutional. 
  • On July 24, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Massachusetts v. HHS, affirming in the request that she and the state of Massachusetts support the lower court ruling. 
  • On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. The decision extends to Massachusetts. 

Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management

  • On January 20, 2010, Lambda Legal filed suit against the Office of Personnel Management on behalf of Karen Golinski, a longtime employee of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Golinski had applied for health benefits for her spouse, but the request was denied. Despite an order from Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, the O.P.M. did not approve Golinski’s application, citing DOMA’s Section 3.
  • Golinski and Lambda Legal sued the federal government, arguing that DOMA interfered with the orders of the federal appellate court’s chief judge. 
  • On February 22, 2012, the District Court sided with Golinski and held that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. In his written opinion, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White agreed with the Department of Justice’s position that the matter should be reviewed under “heightened scrutiny,” rather than the “rational basis” standard. He wrote: “After concluding that neither the law nor the record can sustain any of the interests suggested, the Court, having tried on its own, cannot conceive of any additional interests that DOMA might further.”
  • On July 3, 2012, the Department of Justice filed a writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Golinski v. O.P.M., affirming in the request that the Justice Department supports lower court rulings that found DOMA's Section 3 unconstitutional.   
  • On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. The decision extends to Golinski.

Windsor v. United States

  • In November 2010, the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, in conjunction with the ACLU, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of Edie Windsor.
  • Windsor, a resident of New York, had legally married Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007 after the two had lived together as a couple in New York for over 40 years. Two years after marrying Windsor, Spyer passed away due to complications from multiple sclerosis, and she left her estate to her wife. 
  • Windsor was forced to pay $363,000 in federal taxes on Spyer’s inheritance. Had their marriage been accorded the same status under federal law as a different-sex marriage, Windsor would have paid $0 in federal taxes. 
  • The lawsuit argued that DOMA violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution by recognizing and honoring marriages of different-sex couples but not honoring the legal marriages of same-sex couples. Windsor sought a refund on the taxes she was forced to pay.
  • On February 23, 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo on behalf of the Obama Administration stating that the administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA’s Section 3. The memo specifically addressed Windsor v. United States. 
  • The Bipartisan Legal Advocacy Group chose to intervene in the case and defend Section 3 of DOMA since the Department of Justice would no longer defend the law.
  • On June 6, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones ruled that DOMA’s Section 3 is unconstitutional on a “rational basis.” Judge Jones wrote: “DOMA operates to reexamine the states’ decisions concerning same-sex marriage. It sanctions some of those decisions and rejects others. But such a sweeping federal review in this arena does not square with our federalist system of government, which places matters at the ‘core’ of the domestic relations law exclusively within the province of the states.”
  • On June 14, the Department of Justice appealed the ruling, with the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group defending DOMA in court. 
  • On July 16, 2012, attorneys for Edith Windsor filed a writ of certiorari asking the U.S.  Supreme Court to hear Windsor v. United States, affirming the lower court's ruling. 
  • On October 18, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York upheld Judge Jones' ruling, deciding that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional.
  • On December 7, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will review Windsor v. United States in 2013. 
  • On March 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court hear oral arguments in the Windsor v. United States case. 
  • On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. 

Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management 

  •  Pedersen v. O.P.M. was filed on November 9, 2010 on behalf of married couples and widowers in Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. 
  • The case has the same central argument as GLAD's other DOMA lawsuit, Gill v. O.P.M. - that Section 3 of DOMA violates the federal government's promise of equal protection of the laws contained in the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • On February 23, 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo on behalf of the Obama Administration stating that the administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA’s Section 3. The memo specifically addressed Pedersen v. O.P.M.
  • On June 20, 2012, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which has vowed to defend DOMA, requested a stay in Pedersen v. O.P.M., explaining that the outcome of other concurrent DOMA cases would sufficiently resolve Pedersen. 
  • On July 4, 2012, Judge Vanessa Bryant denied BLAG's request for the stay, thus allowing the court to rule in the case at any time. 
  • On July 31, 2012, Judge Vanessa Bryant ruled that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional because it violates the fifth amendment's promise of equal protection under the law.
  • On August 21, 2012, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders filed a writ of certiorari asking the U.S.  Supreme Court to hear Pedersen v. O.P.M., affirming the lower court's ruling. The Department of Justice filed a similar writ of certiorari on September 11, 2012.
  • On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Windsor v. United States, ruling Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. The decision extends to Pedersen.

Other Cases Ruling DOMA Unconstitutional

Dragovich v. U.S. Department of Treasury

  • In 2010, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit on behalf of a number of California public employees who could not include their spouses in their health care and pension benefit plans because of DOMA's Section 3.
  • On January 18, 2011, Federal Judge Claudia Wilken of the Ninth Circuit rejected a motion from the federal government to reject the case. 
  • On May 24, 2012, Judge Wilken found that DOMA's Section 3 violates the equal protection rights of the same-sex couples in the lawsuit. She also found that a provision of tax law in California unconstitutionally restricts same-sex couples and domestic partners from participating in the state of California's long-term care insurance plan. 
  • On June 26, 2012, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group filed a notice of appeal.

In re Balas and Morales

  • On February 24, 2011, Gene Balas and Carlos Morales, a same-sex couple who had married in California prior to the enactment of Proposition 8, filed for joint bankruptcy in Los Angeles. The government sought to dismiss their case, claiming that Balas and Morales were ineligible to file for joint bankruptcy because they were a same-sex couple and DOMA denied this option.
  • On June 13, 2011, Judge Thomas Donovan and 19 other judges in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional because it violated the due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
  • The decision stands as legally binding in the Central District of California. Following this opinion, the Department of Justice has shifted its policy and no longer intervenes to block married same-sex couples from filing joint petitions for bankruptcy.

Cases Stayed Pending Other DOMA Challenges

McLaughlin v. Panetta

  • On October 27, 2011, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed McLaughlin v. Panetta on behalf of current and former service members. SLDN argues that gay and lesbian members of the U.S. Armed Forces who are married should receive the same recognition, protections and family support as different-sex couples.
  • The lawsuit contests the constitutionality of DOMA’s section 3, as well as provisions in Title 10, Title 32, and Title 38 of U.S. Code.
  • The case is on hold pending the outcome of Gill v. O.P.M. and Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services.