While today’s ruling is a victory for equality advocates, questions about the law’s premise remain to be decided by the Supreme Court.
For the dwindling number of supporters of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Clinton-era federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, the bad news Thursday from Boston actually could have been much worse.
Yes, it’s true that the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the guts of the law — the first federal appeals court in the country to do so. The ruling declares that Section 3 of the law cannot be used to deprive lawfully-married same-sex couples of the federal rights and benefits to which lawfully married opposite-sex couples are given. The case now is styled Massachusetts v. U.S. Dep’t Health and Human Services.
Yes, it’s true that two of the three judges who issued Thursday’s ruling are Republican appointees. Judge Michael Boudin is a nominee of the first President Bush. Judge Juan Torruella is a nominee of President Reagan. When you factor in U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro, the Nixon appointee who first struck down the law in 2010, it means that three of the four judges responsible for DOMA’s current predicament are GOP infused.
And, yes, it’s true, the ruling jeopardizes enforcement of the federal Marriage Act all across the country. Sure, it can still be cited (in the 1st Circuit and elsewhere) to deny same-sex couples their benefits. But those denials are more legally suspect today than they were yesterday. The Supreme Court now must resolve this conflict — and today’s decision virtually guarantees that the justices will have to act sooner rather than later.
All that is true. But the language of the 1st Circuit’s 35-page ruling is no Jeremiad against DOMA or opponents of same-sex marriage. It is not something likely to be as widely quoted as other recent rulings over same-sex marriage in America. And it clearly does not purport to be the definitive or last word on the subject. We have here instead a modest ruling which accomplishes four significant things at the same time (something, not incidentally, that intermediate appellate courts are supposed to do as they funnel cases up the ladder to Washington).
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