Mass. AG Martha Coakley Files DOMA Challenge Brief

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 10, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is asking the First Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a 2010 district court finding that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

DOMA, which defines a marriage as limited to a husband and wife, was enacted in 1996. Until DOMA, state marriage determinations controlled for purposes of all federal laws and programs.

Last year, a district court granted summary judgment to the Commonwealth in Massachusetts v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, and to plaintiff couples in Gill v. Office of Personnel Mgmt, in parallel equal protection claims. In their DOMA challenges, the plaintiffs argued that DOMA violates the Tenth Amendment.

Contrary to popular belief, the Tenth Amendment is not the exclusive domain of conservative-leaning states' rights advocates; here, the plaintiffs employed the Tenth Amendment to argue that DOMA violates the United States Constitution by interfering with the Commonwealth's sovereign authority to define and regulate the marital status of its residents.

Their complaints also alleged that DOMA exceeds Congress's authority under the Spending Clause, and that it unlawfully requires Massachusetts to disregard valid marriages in its implementation of federally funded programs.

Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The Commonwealth maintains that DOMA violates the rights of legally-married same-sex couples by denying healthcare coverage to low- and moderate-income residents of Massachusetts through the MassHealth program, and restricting burial rights for Massachusetts veterans and their spouses at cemeteries owned and operated by the Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments in the case in 2012.

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