"This case could result in the next major court ruling on the constitutionality of DOMA"
(San Francisco, December 17, 2010)—The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California heard oral arguments on Friday in a Lambda Legal lawsuit against the Obama Administration that may have major implications for the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.
Lambda Legal and Morrison & Foerster LLP filed suit against the federal government earlier this year on behalf of Karen Golinski, a 19-year employee of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Golinski seeks the same spousal health insurance for her wife, Amy Cunninghis, that heterosexual employees receive for their spouses. Golinski and Cunninghis have been together for 21 years. Golinski v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) requests an order directing the agency to obey prior rulings by the Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals awarding the equal insurance benefits to Golinski. OPM should rescind its instruction to Golinski's insurer, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, not to enroll Golinski's wife in the family health insurance plan.
"This case could result in the next major court ruling on the constitutionality of DOMA," said Jennifer C. Pizer, Senior Counsel for Lambda Legal. "This began as a simple internal personnel matter; the irony is that the Obama Administration, through the decisions of OPM and the Department of Justice to assert DOMA as an excuse for the discriminatory treatment of Karen Golinski, has turned this into a challenge to DOMA itself."
The judge previously asked both sides to file additional legal briefs addressing, among other topics, whether or not DOMA violates the U.S. Constitution. Lambda Legal has explained that the law indeed is unconstitutional because it discriminates based on sex and sexual orientation and infringes on the fundamental right to privacy and respect for one's family relationships recognized by the Supreme Court in Lambda Legal's landmark case, Lawrence v. Texas.
"Judge White, both through his request for supplementary information during the briefing process and his questioning at today's hearing, seems keenly interested in how the Obama Administration now is defending DOMA, after having reached out to block benefits for Karen and Amy," said Pizer. "He seemed rightly skeptical of the government's argument that DOMA maintains 'consistency' in how the federal government allocates federal rights and benefits. Before DOMA, the federal government—consistently—respected all legal marriages, no matter what state issued the license or who married whom. Now, for the first time under DOMA, the government inconsistently distinguishes among legally married people, favoring heterosexuals and ignoring lesbians and gay men, and for no reasons other than ignorance, prejudice and anti-gay religious condemnation."
"Judge White also skewered another piece of twisted logic on OPM's part: that the Executive Branch agency's duty to negotiate contracts with insurance plans to cover federal workers somehow authorizes it to meddle in and to thwart individual enrollment decisions ordered by top managers of a different branch of the federal government. OPM's facilitation and support functions go nowhere that far."
Lambda Legal's Pizer represents Golinski together with Rita Lin, James McGuire, Gregory Dresser and Aaron Jones of Morrison & Foerster LLP.
The case is Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management and John Berry, Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in his official capacity.