The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

In 2004, following the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Goodridge v. Dep't of Public Health pdf format of Goodridge v. Dep’t of Public Health (2004)
, Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry.  Since that time, more than 20,000 same-sex couples have married in the Commonwealth. 

The Goodridge decision, however, did not create equal marriages for all couples in Massachusetts.  A federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996, limited federal recognition of marriages to those between different-sex couples.  DOMA excluded same-sex couples from hundreds of federal rights, responsibilities, and benefits, including: filing a joint federal tax return, Social Security survivor benefits, guaranteed leave from work to care for sick spouses, flexible spending accounts for medical expenses of spouses, and gift tax and estate tax exemptions for spouses.  These rights and protections affected all facets of life from the workplace to healthcare to retirement.

At Attorney General Coakley’s direction, in 2009, Massachusetts became the first, and only, state in the nation to file a complaint alleging that DOMA violated the U.S. Constitution by disregarding Massachusetts marriages and interfering with a state’s sovereign authority to define and regulate the marital status of its residents. ( Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Services, et al. (2009)  pdf format of Commonwealth of MA v. U.S. H.H.S. (2009)
) Together with the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which filed a companion case on behalf of individual Massachusetts residents harmed by DOMA, AG Coakley argued before the U.S. District Court that there is no legitimate basis for DOMA and that it was an unjust and discriminatory law.  AG Coakley’s office and GLAD presented the court a significant and undisputed factual record, including extensive expert testimony, in an effort to show that DOMA served no purpose other than to communicate disapproval of gay and lesbian people.  The District Court decisions, issued on July 8, 2010, were the first in the country to hold DOMA unconstitutional.

After the United States appealed the District Court’s decisions, the Department of Justice announced in 2011 that it would cease defending DOMA against Equal Protection challenges.  Subsequently, Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives (BLAG) intervened in the consolidated appeal with GLAD’s case to continue DOMA’s defense.  On May 31, 2012, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court's ruling, becoming the first appellate court to strike DOMA down.

Both the Department of Justice and BLAG sought U.S. Supreme Court review of the decision; however, the Supreme Court selected a Second Circuit case to determine the constitutionality of DOMA.  In United States v. Windsor, a New York women was forced to pay more than $360,000 in taxes on the estates of her deceased spouse, as a result of DOMA’s prohibition against the recognition of same-sex marriages. AG Coakley, along with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and 13 other states and the District of Columbia, submitted a friend-of the-court brief in the Windsor case urging the Supreme Court to strike down DOMA as unconstitutional.

California’s Proposition 8

Asserting that everyone should have the right to marry the person that they love, AG Coakley has also fought against California’s Proposition 8, a ballot initiative prohibiting same-sex marriage in that state.  On February 28, 2013, AG Coakley led a multi-state effort urging the Supreme Court to strike down the law, submitting a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, and arguing that Proposition 8’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples violates the Equal Protection Clause.  AG Coakley’s office filed a similar amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit in 2010, when the Perry case was before that court of appeals.


For more information, view the Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the DOMA Decision .