Federal Judge Rules for Long Term CalPERS Benefits for Same-Sex Partners
On May 24, Judge Claudia Wilken, a federal judge in the Northern District of California, struck down two federal laws, § 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and § 7702B(f) of the tax code, calling them anti-gay and unconstitutional. Section 3 of the DOMA famously limited the federal definition of “marriage” to opposite-sex couples, excluding same-sex couples married in their home states from being recognized as married under federal law. Section 7702B(f) of the tax code gives sizeable federal tax breaks to state-run long-term care plans (i.e. for state employees or retirees) unless they cover people who live under the same roof as the state worker and are members of that same household, but are not married—a very obvious reference to domestic partners. In California, that means that CalPERS has been refusing to cover same-sex spouses and domestic partners under the state long-term care plan. The people who brought this case are a group of spouses and domestic partners whom CalPERS rejected from its long-term care plan simply because they were in same-sex relationships.
After looking at the records of Congress’ discussions about the laws, Judge Wilken concluded that the obvious reason for cutting gays and lesbians out of both the federal definition of marriage and state-run long-term care coverage was hostility toward gays and lesbians, pure and simple. However, in deciding whether the laws were constitutional, Judge Wilken pointed out that she was still required to measure them against the easiest and lowest legal standard, according to previous decisions of the Ninth Circuit (the federal appeals court covering most of the western United States, including California). This standard, called “rational basis review,” says that a law doesn’t violate the constitutional guarantee of Equal Protection if it has a “rational relationship to a legitimate government interest,” even if it singles people out based on their sexuality. (Higher, harder-to-meet standards would apply to laws that distinguish between people based on other qualities, such as race or gender.)
Judge Wilken decided that, even using the low “rational basis” standard, both laws violated the Constitution. She decided that DOMA’s opposite-sex-only marriage definition has no logical relationship to an acceptable government goal. Among other things, she noted that “protecting tradition” is not enough to justify laws based only on anti-gay attitudes and rejected the illogical argument that cutting gays and lesbians out of the definition of marriage somehow encourages straight people to reproduce more responsibly. As for § 7702B(f), Judge Wilken decided there is simply no logical reason to exclude same-sex partners from state-run long-term care plans, especially when a huge variety of other family members are covered, including very distant relatives. She also noted that doing so completely undercut Congress’ goal in passing § 7702B, which was, ironically, to encourage people to buy long-term care coverage to help care for their family members.
While the final outcome of this case is on hold until it goes up through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and possibly the Supreme Court, the Dragovich decision already can be considered a major win for equal rights advocates. It unapologetically digs into the ugly history behind DOMA, § 7702B(f), and other laws which limit the rights of LGBTQ citizens and offers hope that courts will continue to see these laws for what they are and strike them down as illegal.
By Sarah Wright-Schreiberg