BREAKING: Massachusetts AG to Sue U.S. for Marriage Recognition

Mass. A.G. Martha Coakley

Mass. A.G. Martha Coakley

From the Attorney General’s office:

Attorney General Martha Coakley will announce the details of a lawsuit that her office has filed challenging the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as it relates to Massachusetts.  Currently, 16,000 married same-sex Massachusetts couples are unfairly denied federal benefits under this act.

Here’s the Complaint (pdf).

Here’s the AP article.

Coakley is only going after section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and has made clear that the state itself suffers additional injuries in addition to those raised in Gill, the lawsuit brought by the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

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THE NEWS CONFERENCE: AG Coakley introduces Jonathan Miller, Civil Rights AAG, and Maura Healey, Civil Rights Section Chief, who are with her.

Coakley begins by saying that the words of John Adams, in Massachusetts’ constitution, were determined in 2004 to mean that marriage must be available to all couples regardless of sexual orientation. After five years of living that experience, today, Massachusetts filed a lawsuit in federal District Court challenging Section 3 of DOMA.

Coakley gave three reasons for the suit:

  1. DOMA created a federal definition of marriage, directly interfering with Massachusetts’ longstanding soverign authority to determine who it determines are “married” under federal law.
  2. DOMA is a discriminatory law.
  3. DOMA places Mass. in the position of choosing whether to adapt its programs to fit federal law, but if it does so, it limits the ability of Mass. residents to have full equality under Mass. programs.

Section 2, the Full Faith and Credit portion of DOMA, is not challenged.

Among the commonwealth-specific harms Coakley cited are:

  • The commonwealth is affected when it provides health benefits because same-sex couples who choose to receive them are tax on those partners’ benefits, which “frankly creates a paperwork nightmare.”  She referred repeatedly to the “two-tiered” system the state had to create after 2004 as a result of DOMA.
  • DOMA requires that Mass treats individuals differently under public medical benefits like Medicaid and Medicare.
  • Mass. cannot inter the same-sex spouses of military veterans in federal military burial locations.

The lawsuit, per Coakley, is seeking an injunction against the federal government prohibiting it from applying DOMA to Massachusetts.

DOMA also violates the Spending Clause, the suit alleges.  One clear limitation is that Congress cannot compel the states to violate its states’ citizens state constitutional rights. This is interesting because it is something that is far more effectively raised by a state than any private party.

Asked about the GLAD Gill lawsuit, Coakley said that the state’s lawsuit is brought on behalf of all citizens, so it is in that sense broader.  “They [the GLAD suit's lawyers] bring similar and related issues as to the impact” of DOMA.

Consolidation with the Gill suit is a possibility they have considered, as she said judges “often put together” cases containing similar issues.

As to why now and why Massachusetts, Coakley noted, “We now have a record of five years” of implementing marriage equality and seeing the development of the “two-tiered” system.

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REACTIONS: From my perspective, Coakley has done a great job of advancing the reasons why the state — as the state — has additional burdens to bear because of DOMA beyond the burdens that individual couples bear.  As such, this suit does have a slightly different flavor than the Gill challenge.

GLAD has said that it “applaud[s] the Commonwealth’s move to protect legally married same-sex couples from the harms caused by federal discrimination.”

HRC also has issued a statement, saying, in part:

This lawsuit, which names the United States and the Secretaries and Departments of Veterans affairs and Health and Human Services as defendants, marks the first time that a state has challenged the federal government’s discriminatory treatment of its LGBT citizens.

Chairman Barney Frank says: “Martha Coakley’s decision to join the lawsuit against the part of The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denies federal recognition of thousands of valid Massachusetts marriages deserves the support and gratitude of all of the state’s residents.”

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About the Author

Chris Geidner is the award-winning senior political & legal reporter at BuzzFeed and has written for Metro Weekly, The Atlantic Online, The American Prospect, Advocate.com, Salon and other publications, as well as at his blog, Law Dork. He has appeared regularly on television commenting on current affairs, including MSNBC, PBS, HLN & Current. Prior to moving to D.C. in 2009, he served as an attorney on the senior staff at the Ohio Attorney General's Office and had earlier worked for a leading Columbus law firm. An extended biography can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter.