NEW YORK — A federal judge in Manhattan joined a growing chorus of judges across the country Wednesday by striking down a key component of the federal law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones said the Defense of Marriage Act’s definitions “intrude upon the states’ business of regulating domestic relations” by re-examining the marriage definitions by the various states - six of which, plus the District of Columbia, recognize gay marriages.
“That incursion skirts important principles of federalism and therefore cannot be legitimate, in this court’s view,” Judge Jones said.
The ruling came in a case brought by Edith Windsor, a woman whose partner died in 2009, two years after they married in Canada. Because of the federal law, Ms. Windsor didn’t qualify for the unlimited marital deduction on her late spouse’s estate and was required to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax. Ms. Windsor sued the government in November 2010.
The government declined to comment through Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for government attorneys in Manhattan.
Liberal and pro-gay groups praised the ruling, with the American Civil Liberties Union including comments from Ms. Windsor in its release.
“It’s thrilling to have a court finally recognize how unfair it is for the government to have treated us as though we were strangers,” Ms. Windsor said of her 44-year relationship with Thea Spyer.
The ruling came just days after a federal appeals court in Boston found the law’s denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples unconstitutional. The decision by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal judge’s 2010 ruling. In California, two federal judges found this year that the law violates the due-process rights of legally married same-sex couples. The issue is likely to reach the Supreme Court.
James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project, said the ruling “adds to what has become an avalanche of decisions that DOMA can’t survive even the lowest level of scrutiny by the courts.”
In court papers filed in August, a lawyer for the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives defended the role of the federal government in defining marriage.
“While it is true that regulating the details of traditional marriage historically has been left to the states, it also is true that the federal government has been involved with and injected itself into marriage law when states have deviated from the traditional definition,” wrote attorney Paul D. Clement on the group’s behalf.
“Thus, for instance, the United States Congress banned polygamy in United States territories when faced with widespread plural marriage in the Utah Territory.”