Current and retired federal employees who have been on the offense against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) can’t taste victory yet, but its scent is growing stronger now that the Supreme Court has decided to review the law.
Federal workers and retirees have been on the vanguard against DOMA. Yet, though the court did not choose one of their cases, the one picked this month certainly will have implications for the federal workforce.
DOMA defines marriage for federal purposes as a union between a man and a woman. But instead of defending marriage, the law interferes with it by not recognizing same-sex unions. More marriage builds the institution. Rather than strengthening marriage by treating all families the same, Uncle Sam turns his back on same-sex unions that are legal in their states and the District by denying them benefits available to other married couples.
So it is with anticipation that federal employees and retirees look forward to a decision that is expected in June after oral arguments in the spring. This case deals with Edith “Edie” Windsor, 83, who was hit with a $363,000 estate tax bill after her 44-year female partner, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. They were wed two years earlier in Canada, which has a more sane approach to marriage.
Simply because of the gender of the person each loves, the federal employees cannot include their spouses in the family benefits available to straight couples. Here’s what the federal folks told us about the Supreme Court case.
Joanne Pedersen: “We’re very, very hopeful on our end. It would allow me to put my wife on my health insurance. And as a federal retiree, that would greatly improve our finances.”
Martin “Al” Koski: “My spouse and I are very happy . . . the Supreme Court has decided to take on at least one of the cases. . . . We’re very optimistic.”
Nancy Gill: “I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m a positive thinker.”
Pedersen, retired from the Office of Naval Intelligence after 30 years of federal service; Koski, retired from the Social Security Administration after 21 years of service; and Gill, still working as a 25-year Postal Service employee, are represented by GLAD, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
While they are optimistic, so is John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization of Marriage, which supports the restricted definition of marriage. “We’re confident the court will uphold DOMA,” he said.
It might. It might not. Or it might do neither.
“The justices could decide one of the great political and civil rights questions of our time, rule narrowly on the two cases it accepted or even punt, on the grounds that the cases are not properly before them,” wrote my colleague Robert Barnes, The Washington Post’s Supreme Court reporter.
The ruling will have a major impact on people such as Karen Golinski, a federal lawyer with a same-sex spouse.
“It’s huge,” she said. “The ramifications of a decision. . . are really very huge.”
After a court fight, she was allowed to enroll her wife in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, but the Office of Personnel Management said that decision applied only to Golinski. She is represented by Lambda Legal.
If the Supreme Court punts, then lower court rulings against DOMA would stand. But those decisions would not have a nationwide legal effect, leaving “not a great deal of clarity about what that means in other parts of the country,” said Brian Moulton, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equal rights organization.
The federal plaintiffs, however, have reason to be optimistic. They have won repeatedly at the lower court levels. That was a point Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the House Democratic leader, noted when she criticized the House Republican leadership after reports that it increased funding, to $2 million, for the outside lawyers Republicans hired to defend DOMA.
“It’s bad enough that Speaker [John A.] Boehner [R-Ohio] and House Republicans are wasting taxpayer dollars to defend the indefensible Defense of Marriage Act,” her statement said. “Now, they have reached a new low — signing a secret contract to spend more public money on their legal boondoggle without informing Democrats. Their actions are simply unconscionable; their decisions are utterly irresponsible.”
Neither Boehner nor the outside counsel responded to a request for comment.
Despite those millions, “the end of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act is in sight,” Moulton said. “Time after time, federal courts have agreed that DOMA wrongly denies gays and lesbians the recognition that their marriages deserve, and the important rights and benefits that come with it. For married gay and lesbian federal workers, a victory in the Supreme Court will mean finally receiving equal pay and benefits for equal work, and much greater security for their families.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.