The judges of the Northern District of California have been front and center in recent challenges of bans on same-sex marriage consistently ruling in favor of same-sex couples. And yet gay employees of the federal court here are still fighting to obtain health benefits for their spouses that many in private industry take for granted.
It's a sign that even as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to consider several petitions this week in cases where judges struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, different branches of the U.S. government remain at odds over the constitutionality of DOMA and how to apply it.
Last week, an administrative panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered Northern District Clerk of Court Richard Wieking to reimburse court employee Christopher Nathan for health coverage denied to his husband last year.
Nathan is a law clerk to Chief Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James of San Francisco, who officiated at his marriage to Thomas Alexander during the 2008 window, prior to passage of Proposition 8, when same-sex marriages were recognized in California.
In late 2011, Nathan applied to enroll Alexander on his federal employee health insurance plan and was informed that his request could not be processed because DOMA prohibits the extension of insurance coverage to same-sex spouses.
Led by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, the Ninth Circuit's executive committee affirmed an April administrative decision from the Northern District's then Chief Judge James Ware finding that the denial of health benefits for a same-sex spouse unjustly reduced Nathan's total compensation on the basis of his sexual orientation.
Ware ordered an award of back pay and front pay to compensate Nathan, but did not address DOMA's definition of marriage as a legal union between "one man and one woman as husband and wife." He stated that declaring DOMA unconstitutional would exceed his authority in the administrative proceeding.
The Ninth Circuit panel of Kozinksi, Judge Raymond Fisher and U.S. District Judge Stephen McNamee of Arizona relied on the 2012 decision by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White invalidating DOMA in Golinski v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management, 12-15388.
Citing Golinski as controlling authority in the Ninth Circuit, the committee disregarded a conflicting opinion from the Government Accountability Office. That decision, released in August, stated that federal courts may not lawfully use public funds to reimburse employees for health insurance costs for same-sex spouses.
White's ruling in Golinski, along with similar decisions finding DOMA unconstitutional in the First and Second Circuits, "effectively reject the GAO's decision," the judges wrote.
In 2009, Kozinski sided with Karen Golinski, a Ninth Circuit staff attorney, in her quest for spousal benefits when he presided over the administrative proceedings she initiated when she couldn't enroll her wife on an insurance plan. Her case is one of five petitions involving DOMA that will be considered for review by the U.S. Supreme Court in closed door session Friday. Also on the schedule for discussion is an appeal by proponents of California's Prop 8 in Hollingsworth v. Perry.