The nation's largest bankruptcy court has declared a controversial law banning federal recognition of gay marriages unconstitutional.
The ruling in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California was the first to address the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act since U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in February that the Obama administration considered the law discriminatory and would no longer defend it in court.
The decision issued by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Donovan was prompted by a joint bankruptcy filing by a Los Angeles gay couple legally married in 2008. The U.S. trustee assigned to vet the filing by Gene Balas and Carlos Morales had asked Donovan to dismiss the Chapter 13 petition because the 15-year-old law, known as DOMA, restricts federal benefits like joint filings to marriages between a man and a woman. Donovan ruled that the law violated the Constitution's equal protection guarantee.
Legal analysts said the ruling could have broad implications for gay spouses seeking equal treatment from federal agencies because it adds weight to two other federal court rulings in Massachusetts last year making their way through the appeals process.
The rulings last July by U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro dealt only with the law as it affects Massachusetts residents, and Monday's ruling by the Los Angeles bankruptcy court was likewise specific to the local case. But the rulings are seen as bellwethers for the possible extension of federal benefits to gay spouses in states where such marriages are legal, including the estimated 18,000 gay couples who wed in California in 2008.
Donovan's 26-page ruling ranged beyond the bankruptcy matter and cited civil rights cases over the last 50 years. Douglas NeJaime, a Loyola Law School professor who studies sexual-orientation law, said the ruling could influence other legal challenges to the law.
"It shows the real impact that the administration's change of position might have in DOMA litigation," said NeJaime, pointing out that Holder asked the courts to subject the law to a more rigorous constitutional analysis than had been applied in the past.
The ruling Monday was also signed by 19 other judges on the 24-member court in an unusually emphatic display of consensus, he said.
After Holder informed Congress four months ago that the Justice Department would no longer defend the law against mounting legal challenges, conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives vowed to step in and defend the legislation. The House bipartisan legal counsel had asked Donovan for additional time to respond to the constitutional challenge made by Balas and Morales but never filed its legal argument with Donovan despite being granted a two-week extension, the ruling noted.
In rejecting the federal trustee's motion to dismiss the bankruptcy petition, Donovan said the court "discerns no valid, defensible governmental interest" in rejecting the filing just because the petitioners are gay.
"In the court's final analysis, the government's only basis for supporting DOMA comes down to an apparent belief that the moral views of the majority may properly be enacted as the law of the land … in disregard of the personal status and living conditions of a significant segment of our pluralistic society," Donovan concluded.
Balas, a financial analyst who lost his job in 2008 amid the industry's recession-induced layoffs, said fighting the government in demand of equal treatment was stressful but worth it.
"Carlos and I are a married couple in every aspect, and I think it's hurtful for the government to say we are anything other than a married couple," said Balas. "It was a worthwhile endeavor and certainly well worth the hard work by everyone involved."
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the government would have no comment on the ruling or potential next steps by the department, which includes the federal bankruptcy trustee division.
Robert Pfister, the Los Angeles attorney who represented Balas and Morales pro bono, said two other gay couples in New York and Sacramento had prevailed in their federal bankruptcy court challenges of trustee motions to dismiss their joint filings. But neither judge addressed the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, instead just declining to apply it, Pfister said.
Despite the Justice Department's new policy on DOMA challenges, Pfister said he expected that an appeal of Donovan's ruling would be filed by the trustee on behalf of members of Congress who want the law to remain in force.
Gay marriage opponents were not involved in the bankruptcy case, and a spokeswoman for ProtectMarriage.com, Carla Hass, said that organization was "singularly focused" on its defense of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California in 2008.
Mathew Staver, a representative of Liberty Counsel, said his organization considered the bankruptcy ruling "a threat to traditional marriage that DOMA protects." He said the group was pleased, though, that former Solicitor General Paul Clement is now defending the law on behalf of its congressional backers rather than the Obama administration.