Tuesday, June 14, 2011

20 Bankruptcy Judges Jointly Invalidate Defense of Marriage Act

"Cooperation is the secret to our success"

On Monday, June 13, the federal bankruptcy court in the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles, held that the section of the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA that denies federal effect to lawful marriages between same-sex couples was unconstitutional as applied to a male married couple who filed for bankruptcy.   The court’s opinion in the case styled In re Balas may be found here.  Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the decision was who rendered it.

The opinion was signed by 20 judges of the Central District bankruptcy court, including the current Chief Judge.  This is the overwhelming majority of that court, which is authorized to have 24 judges (three of them temporary) and has sometimes had Judge William Altenberger (who is on “recalled status” in the Seventh Circuit) sit with it.  Altenberger signed this opinion, as did Judge Kathleen Thompson, who is not listed on the Central District bankruptcy court’s website, though Judgepedia notes that her term was set to end in 2016 but she had previously announced an intent to retire in January of 2011.  I have not yet tracked down her current status.

One attorney I know has not seen an opinion signed by multiple bankruptcy judges in 40 years of practice, and I have not heard of any such joint signings.  It seems clearly designed to convey the strength of that court’s judgment about the unconstitutionality of DOMA.  The joint signing practice echoes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 decision that refused to overrule Roe v. Wade outright as requested by the first Bush administration.  In Casey, Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter jointly signed the controlling opinion, rather than following the Court’s customary practice of having an opinion designated as having one author with other Justices concurring in it.  The Casey joint opinion in turn seemed a rather deliberate allusion to the Supreme Court’s 1958 decision in Cooper v. Aaron, where all nine Justices signed an opinion rejecting community resistance to Brown v. Board of Education as an adequate basis for delaying integration of Little Rock High School.  The difference, of course, is that  there is no Supreme Court precedent – yet – directly holding the federal definition section of DOMA unconstitutional, so presumably these judges believe that established constitutional principles, the very same principles cited in Attorney General Holder’s letter concluding that DOMA is unconstitutional (blogged about here), which the bankruptcy court cited, dictate their conclusion.

This case of course can be appealed by the United States Trustee, but it seems unlikely that the Trustee would do so in light of the Holder letter's and the Obama administration’s position of no longer defending DOMA against married same-sex couples.

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