A federal judge in California has ruled that a federal appeals judge has no power to order the U.S. government to provide health benefits to the same-sex spouse of a court employee, but went on to invite a constitutional challenge to the law that mandates a denial of such benefits — the federal Defense of Marriage Act.   The judge also indicated that the challenge probably would succeed.

The decision on Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White of San Francisco was the first by a federal court since the Obama Administration decided last month to stop defending DOMA’s constitutionality in court because it now believes it is invalid, but also vowed to continue enforcing it — a straddling position that the judge appeared to regard with some skepticism.

Judge White declared that he “would, if he could,” rule on whether DOMA is constitutional, and on whether the government could continue enforcing the law even while treating it as unconstitutional.  But, he stressed, neither of those issues was directly at issue before him right now; the only thing he had to decide at this point was whether a federal judge, acting in an administrative role, could command the Executive branch to use its power to award benefits over its protest, and whether a federal court could enforce that command.  He could find no such power, the judge concluded.

“The Court,” he wrote, “is not able to reach these constitutional issues due to the unique procedural posture of this matter.”  Even so, the judge noted that both sides in the case now agree that the court employee has “a clear right to relief,” and he said he agreed with that — a firm indication that, if that employee used the proper legal procedure, she would win.

The judge said it would not be a futile exercise for the court employee to bring a new lawsuit raising exactly those constitutional issues, and he explicitly invited her to do so by filing an amended complaint, by April 15.   If she does not do so, the judge said, he would dismiss the case finally.

Her lawyers, with the legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, praised the judge for concluding that the court employee has a “clear right to relief.”  The group’s news release (found here), did not say whether a new lawsuit would now be filed; that apparently has not yet been decided.  Lambda Legal also has the option, of course, of appealing Judge White’s decision.

The employee involved in the case is Karen Golinski, who is a long-time staff attorney in the Ninth Circuit’s motions office.  After her marriage to Amy Cunninghis in California in August 2008 (during a brief interval when same-sex marriages were allowed there), Golinski was turned down when she asked to have her wife covered under Golinski’s health insurance.  The denial was based on the Defense of Marriage Act.

That dispute turned into a running  legal battle between the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and U.S. Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, who used his administrative authority over employee matters within the Ninth Circuit to order OPM to enroll Golinski’s spouse in her health plan.  OPM insisted that Congress gave it the authority to deal with personnel matters, including insurance coverage, for federal employees, including those who work for the courts.

Judge Kozinski had said that that position threatened the independence of the federal judiciary.  But, on Wednesday, Judge White sided with the Obama Administration’s view, concluding that “there is no specific grant of athority” for a judicial administrative tribunal “to bind an Executive agency…with Congressional authority to administer employee benefits.”

Judge White thus concluded that Golinski was not legally entitled to a court order to enforce Judge Kozinski’s administrative ruling, and granted the Administration’s motion to dismiss her case (Golinski v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management, et al. (District Court docket 10-257).

As chief judge of the Ninth Circuit Court, Judge Kozinski heads a panel that reviews court employee workplace grievances.  In that role, Judge White ruled, Kozinski only has authority over such judicial mattes as “when and where court shall be held, how long a case may be delayed in decision, whether a given case is to be tried, and many other routine matters.”  Thus, that role is confined to “the general management” of court business.

For employee benefits matters, such as health insurance, Judge White found, “Congress has specifically vested the authority…to an executive agency” — that is, to OPM.   The judge noted that another Ninth Circuit Court judge, acting in an administrative capacity, in 2009 had concluded that DOMA was invalid in denying benefits to the same-sex spouse of a federal public defender, and yet went on to rule that that judge had no authority to compel an award of those benefits.

Thus, Judge White ruled, Golinski “cannot surmount the threshold requirement to establish that  OPM has a clear and nondiscretionary duty to act,” so he lacked any power to order it to do so.

Posted in Cases in the Pipeline, Featured

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, A split decision on DOMA, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 17, 2011, 4:03 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2011/03/a-split-decision-on-doma/