Lawsuit pertains to definition of marriage

By Edward Stern J.D.
January 1st, 2010

On July 9, 2009 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. The name of the case is Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Plantiff, v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Kathleen Sebelius, in her capacity as the Secretary of Health and Human Services; U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs; Eric K. Shinseki, in his official capacity as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs; and the United States of America, Defendants. [For a similar but different case see Gill v. Office of Personal Management. [No. 1:09-CV-10309-JLJ, (U.S.DIST.CT.,D.MASS)]].

The case arises around the issues involved in the definition of marriage. Massachusetts and some other New England states have defined marriage as the legal union between two legally competent people. This definition would include both male-female couples and same-sex couples. [See Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 798 N.E. 2d941 (Mass. 2003) and In re: Opinions of the Justices of the Senate, 802 N.E. 2d565 (Mass2004)].

The federal government enacted a law entitled Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) in 1996. DOMA limits marriage to the union between one man and one woman.

The reason for the lawsuit revolves around the conflict between the differing definitions. Massachusetts claims that the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution leaves the issue of marriage solely to the states. The federal government does regulate federal income taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, social security, burial in federal cemeteries and reimbursement to the states for many programs including MassHealth. The federal government has tied its definition of marriage, and DOMA, to the functions and programs which the federal government controls. The federal government will claim that the laws of Congress are the Supreme Law of the land and cannot be superceded by a state without a Constitutional Amendment.

It would appear that Massachusetts, and other states, as well as the federal government have all done something which each was permitted to do. Both governments base their claims on constitutional arguments. So, even if the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, both the state and federal governments are laying claim to the higher position. However, there are some resulting conflicts that cannot be resolved unless one of the government groups is willing to modify its position.

Some of the resulting conflicts involve mechanical issues, which appear to be more of a conflict than they actually are, such as someone being considered married for state income tax law and single for federal income tax law purposes.

However, one of the conflicts deals with federal reimbursement to MassHealth. The federal government could refuse to reimburse Massachusetts for billions of dollars if Massachusetts does not conform to federal guidelines regarding eligibility of coverage in the federal reimbursement program.

Some of the issues have tremendous emotional impact. In federal cemeteries, only a spouse can be buried with someone who qualifies to be buried there. This point seems to be true, even if the state manages the cemetery, the cemetery is required to comply with federal regulations.

There may be other Constitutional questions that arise in addition to the 10th Amendment issue. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires each state to not deny its citizens the “equal protections of the laws.” So the question could be asked “which position is referred to in the 14th Amendment when two laws seem to so clearly conflict, as here?”

The courts may have many options as to how this case will be handled. The issue is not really about which definition of marriage is either correct or will prevail. The real issue here will be who gets to decide which definition will prevail. And, therefore, the result in this matter could affect the possible federal-state relationship in other areas of law.

Edward M. Stern, J.D., has a private law practice in Newtonville, Mass., Stern serves as assistant dean for pre-law advising at Boston University and is a visiting lecturer for the University of Massachusetts/Boston Department of Sociology.

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