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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bankruptcy Court: DOMA Unconstitutionally Limits Same-Sex Married Couples From Joint Bankruptcy Filing

By Chris Geidner -

Today, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California, in Los Angeles, released an opinion finding Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in a bankruptcy filing brought by a same-sex married couple, Gene Douglas Balas and Carlos A. Morales.

The underlying basis for the challenge was described by the court:
This case is about equality, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, for two people who filed for protection under Title 11 of the United States Code (Bankruptcy Code). Like many struggling families during these difficult economic times, Gene Balas and Carlos Morales (Debtors), filed a joint chapter 13 petition on February 24, 2011. Although the Debtors were legally married to each other in California on August 20, 2008, and remain married today, the United States Trustee (sometimes referred to simply as “trustee”) moved to dismiss this case pursuant to Bankruptcy Code § 1307(c) (Motion to Dismiss), asserting that the Debtors are ineligible to file a joint petition based on Bankruptcy Code § 302(a) because the Debtors are two males.

It is important to note that the case was filed on Feb. 24, one day after President Barack Obama's position that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional was announced in a letter sent from Attorney General Eric Holder to House Speaker John Boehner.

As the court summed about the trustee's position:
The trustee seeks dismissal solely because the Debtors are a same-sex married couple, in violation of DOMA’s definition of “spouse” as the statute applies to Bankruptcy Code § 302(a).

The case had been brought to the attention of the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which is defending the Defense of Marriage Act in several other cases, but the BLAG had not intervened in this case, according to the opinion:
The House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, acting through the United States Trustee, at the last minute orally requested a short continuance of the May 17 hearing in order to determine whether to intervene in this case to address the issues. Debtors consented and the court granted the request; yet, there have been no further pleadings and no challenge from the government to any issue raised by the Debtors. The government’s non-response to the Debtors’ challenges is noteworthy.

After reviewing the law as it relates to DOMA, the court concluded:
This court cannot conclude from the evidence or the record in this case that any valid governmental interest is advanced by DOMA as applied to the Debtors. Debtors have urged that recent governmental defenses of the statute assert that DOMA also serves such interests as “preserving the status quo,” “eliminating inconsistencies and easing administrative burdens” of the government. None of these post hoc defenses of DOMA withstands heightened scrutiny. In the court’s final analysis, the government’s only basis for supporting DOMA comes down to an apparent belief that the moral views of the majority may properly be enacted as the law of the land in regard to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in disregard of the personal status and living conditions of a significant segment of our pluralistic society. Such a view is not consistent with the evidence or the law as embodied in the Fifth Amendment with respect to the thoughts expressed in this decision. The court has no doubt about its conclusion: the Debtors have made their case persuasively that DOMA deprives them of the equal protection of the law to which they are entitled.

The opinion is then signed by 20 of the 24 (or 25) bankruptcy judges in the district, presumably to show that a majority of the bankruptcy judges in the district approved of this method of addressing the question in the district. (The confusion comes because one of the signatories, Kathleen Thompson, is not listed as a judge on the court's website.)

Read the opinion: 57794777-DOMA-Memorandum-of-Decision.pdf

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