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Bankruptcy court blasts Defense of Marriage Act

By Bob Egelko, June 15, 2011 (SF Chronicle Writer)

The latest legal manifesto for gay rights comes from an unlikely source - the nation's largest federal bankruptcy court, which declared that a law denying federal benefits to same-sex couples is unconstitutional.

"This case is about equality, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, for two people who filed for protection" from creditors, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles said Monday.  "In this court's judgment, no legally married couple should be entitled to fewer bankruptcy rights than any other legally married couple."

The law that the court said is unconstitutional is the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which allows only male-female couples to claim federal marriage benefits and authorizes states to deny recognition to same-sex couples legally wed elsewhere.  The benefits include money-saving joint income tax returns, Social Security survivors' payments and the right to sponsor a spouse for immigration.
They also include joint bankruptcy filings, which allow people in economic distress to avoid paying multiple filing fees and let couples use their pooled income to pay each other's creditors, said Robert Pfister, lawyer for the Los Angeles couple challenging the 1996 law.

No purpose

Denying such benefits to a legally married same-sex couple serves no purpose in a bankruptcy case, the court said, noting that the couple's creditors have not objected to their joint filing.  "Creditors in this case, as in other cases, simply hope to be paid what they are owed," the court said. "Beyond that, no creditor's notion of morality concerning a same-sex marriage ... has any valid bearing on the creditor's rights in this case."

At least 10 suits challenging the 1996 law are pending around the nation, including cases in San Francisco and Oakland seeking insurance coverage for same-sex spouses of government employees. But only one other federal court, in Massachusetts, has declared the law unconstitutional. 

President [http://www.sfgate.com/barack-obama/] Obama had criticized the law but defended it in court until February, when he said he now considered it unconstitutional and told his Justice Department to withdraw from the cases. House Republican leaders have appointed a private attorney, Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general, to take over the defense.
No-show in L.A.

Clement filed arguments in the San Francisco case June 3, saying the law was justified by tradition and biological differences between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. He also accused Obama of abandoning his constitutional duties.  But Clement has yet to appear in the bankruptcy case, even though the court delayed the proceedings for two weeks at House leaders' request, Pfister said.
Clement's office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Pfister's clients, Gene Balas and Carlos Morales, married in August 2008, three months after the California Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians had a right to wed in the state and less than three months before voters overturned that ruling by passing  Proposition 8 .
 

The couple filed for bankruptcy in February, citing medical bills, illnesses and periods of unemployment since Balas was laid off in 2009 from his job in the financial industry. Pfister said the Chapter 13 filing was intended to establish a five-year repayment plan, but the federal bankruptcy trustee said the joint application violated the 1996 law.

'Strong message'

The bankruptcy court's ruling was signed by 20 of the court's 24 judges, with no dissent. Bankruptcy cases are usually heard by a single judge, and Pfister said he'd never heard of a ruling signed by that many jurists. "I think it sends a very strong message," he said.  No one appeared in defense of the law, but the court cited arguments against same-sex marriage that members of Congress and government lawyers have invoked in the past - that a ban is needed to encourage heterosexual marriage and child-rearing, maintain traditional morality and save the government money.
The law serves none of those purposes, and instead amounts to an attempt to enact "the moral views of the majority ... as the law of the land," the judges said.

Legal trend

The ruling comes in the wake of a federal judge's decision in August striking down Prop. 8, and another federal judge's ruling in September overturning the "don't ask, don't tell" law that barred openly gay or lesbian troops from serving in the military. Congress later voted to repeal that law, but it remains in effect during a Pentagon review.

Monday's ruling is binding only on bankruptcy judges in the Los Angeles district. It can be appealed to a federal judge or to a special panel of bankruptcy judges. But if Clement files a government appeal, Pfister said, his clients will seek immediate review in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which is also considering the same-sex marriage case.

This story has been corrected since it appeared in print editions.
E-mail Bob Egelko at [mailto:begelko@sfchronicle.com] begelko@sfchronicle.com.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Read more: [http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/06/14/BA261JTSHR.DTL#ixzz1QnETaZsg] http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/06/14/BA261JTSHR.DTL#ixzz1QnETaZsg

 

Bankruptcy court blasts Defense of Marriage Act

By Bob Egelko, June 15, 2011 (SF Chronicle Writer)

The latest legal manifesto for gay rights comes from an unlikely source - the nation's largest federal bankruptcy court, which declared that a law denying federal benefits to same-sex couples is unconstitutional.

"This case is about equality, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, for two people who filed for protection" from creditors, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles said Monday.  "In this court's judgment, no legally married couple should be entitled to fewer bankruptcy rights than any other legally married couple."

The law that the court said is unconstitutional is the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which allows only male-female couples to claim federal marriage benefits and authorizes states to deny recognition to same-sex couples legally wed elsewhere.  The benefits include money-saving joint income tax returns, Social Security survivors' payments and the right to sponsor a spouse for immigration.
They also include joint bankruptcy filings, which allow people in economic distress to avoid paying multiple filing fees and let couples use their pooled income to pay each other's creditors, said Robert Pfister, lawyer for the Los Angeles couple challenging the 1996 law.

No purpose

Denying such benefits to a legally married same-sex couple serves no purpose in a bankruptcy case, the court said, noting that the couple's creditors have not objected to their joint filing.  "Creditors in this case, as in other cases, simply hope to be paid what they are owed," the court said. "Beyond that, no creditor's notion of morality concerning a same-sex marriage ... has any valid bearing on the creditor's rights in this case."

At least 10 suits challenging the 1996 law are pending around the nation, including cases in San Francisco and Oakland seeking insurance coverage for same-sex spouses of government employees. But only one other federal court, in Massachusetts, has declared the law unconstitutional. 

President [http://www.sfgate.com/barack-obama/] Obama had criticized the law but defended it in court until February, when he said he now considered it unconstitutional and told his Justice Department to withdraw from the cases. House Republican leaders have appointed a private attorney, Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general, to take over the defense.
No-show in L.A.

Clement filed arguments in the San Francisco case June 3, saying the law was justified by tradition and biological differences between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. He also accused Obama of abandoning his constitutional duties.  But Clement has yet to appear in the bankruptcy case, even though the court delayed the proceedings for two weeks at House leaders' request, Pfister said.
Clement's office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Pfister's clients, Gene Balas and Carlos Morales, married in August 2008, three months after the California Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians had a right to wed in the state and less than three months before voters overturned that ruling by passing  Proposition 8 .
 

The couple filed for bankruptcy in February, citing medical bills, illnesses and periods of unemployment since Balas was laid off in 2009 from his job in the financial industry. Pfister said the Chapter 13 filing was intended to establish a five-year repayment plan, but the federal bankruptcy trustee said the joint application violated the 1996 law.

'Strong message'

The bankruptcy court's ruling was signed by 20 of the court's 24 judges, with no dissent. Bankruptcy cases are usually heard by a single judge, and Pfister said he'd never heard of a ruling signed by that many jurists. "I think it sends a very strong message," he said.  No one appeared in defense of the law, but the court cited arguments against same-sex marriage that members of Congress and government lawyers have invoked in the past - that a ban is needed to encourage heterosexual marriage and child-rearing, maintain traditional morality and save the government money.
The law serves none of those purposes, and instead amounts to an attempt to enact "the moral views of the majority ... as the law of the land," the judges said.

Legal trend

The ruling comes in the wake of a federal judge's decision in August striking down Prop. 8, and another federal judge's ruling in September overturning the "don't ask, don't tell" law that barred openly gay or lesbian troops from serving in the military. Congress later voted to repeal that law, but it remains in effect during a Pentagon review.

Monday's ruling is binding only on bankruptcy judges in the Los Angeles district. It can be appealed to a federal judge or to a special panel of bankruptcy judges. But if Clement files a government appeal, Pfister said, his clients will seek immediate review in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which is also considering the same-sex marriage case.

This story has been corrected since it appeared in print editions.
E-mail Bob Egelko at [mailto:begelko@sfchronicle.com] begelko@sfchronicle.com.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Read more: [http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/06/14/BA261JTSHR.DTL#ixzz1QnETaZsg] http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/06/14/BA261JTSHR.DTL#ixzz1QnETaZsg

 

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License number 00685309
NMLS number 338105
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