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Federal case seeking spousal health benefits for lesbian employee of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.


Karen Golinski, a federal court employee, sought to add her spouse, Amy Cunninghis, to her employer-provided health benefits plan after they were married in California in 2008. Since Golinski works as a lawyer for the Ninth Circuit, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, acting in an internal administrative capacity, ordered in 2009 that Golinski be given the family coverage after she filed an internal employment discrimination complaint.  But the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), part of the executive branch of the federal government, thwarted those administrative orders and refused to allow Golinski to enroll her spouse for health coverage, arguing that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevented OPM from recognizing Golinski’s marriage. 

Lambda Legal and Morrison & Foerster LLP filed suit in federal district court seeking to stop OPM’s interference with the administrative finding that Golinski be treated equally. We requested enforcement of the court’s non-discrimination rule arguing, at the time, that the court administrator had the authority to determine employee eligibility for benefits without reference to DOMA.  Then in February of 2011, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder announced a dramatic policy shift based on their conclusion that DOMA is unconstitutional. Although the Department of Justice would no long be defending DOMA in court it also made clear that the government will continue to enforce DOMA as long as the law is still in place and will continue to deny spousal benefits to all federal employees with a same-sex spouse.

Since OPM was being defended by the Department of Justice – which had defended OPM’s refusal to cover Karen’s spouse – the new development threw a curve ball into the litigation. The district court judge did not immediately rule in Golinski’s favor, deciding instead that OPM had the authority to determine eligibility – but allowed us to file an amended complaint arguing that DOMA is unconstitutional.

Lambda Legal filed the amended complaint on Golinski’s behalf seeking to overturn DOMA Section 3, arguing that it violates the Constitution. This time, the Department of Justice (DOJ) argued against DOMA instead of defending it.

In February of 2012, Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey White issued a sweeping order declaring Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional. That ruling was appealed by the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives that was now defending DOMA on behalf of the Republican House Majority.

While the case is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review this case “prior to judgment” – that is, before review by the court of appeals. The Department of Justice argues that Golinski is a good vehicle for the Supreme Court to consider because Judge White, in a particularly persuasive and nuanced analysis, decided that heightened scrutiny applies to sexual orientation discrimination and applied that standard to find Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, accepting DOJ’s argument in the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court, our nation’s highest court, will be the ultimate court to decide whether DOMA violates the constitution.

There are three other similar cases brought by GLAD and the ACLU pending review as well.

Read The Top 10 Things You Should Know About DOMA and the U.S. Supreme Court.