US Judge Rejects Binational Couple’s DOMA Challenge

Central California district court says 1982 Ninth Circuit precedent controls

BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD In a decision released on September 28, US District Judge Stephen V. Wilson of the Central District of California ruled that Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals precedent binding on that district court requires him to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the Customs and Immigration Service's refusal to recognize a same-sex marriage between an American citizen and an Indonesian man.

Wilson relied on a 1982 ruling that predates positive advances in gay rights at the Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs, Michael Ernest Roberts and Hamdi Lui, married in Massachusetts in 2009. The same day, Roberts, the US citizen, filed an I-130 petition on behalf of his husband with Customs and Immigration’s California Service Center seeking recognition of his spousal status. The Service denied the petition and was upheld by the Board of Immigration Appeals in January of this year.

The men then filed an action with the district court, claiming the government's refusal to recognize their marriage violates their Fifth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection and constitutes “sex discrimination” prohibited by the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Their suit effectively challenges Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages. In support of their claim, they cited the Gill v. Office of Personnel Management case, currently on appeal at the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in which a US district court in Massachusetts found Section 3 unconstitutional.

Gill and this case are two of several in which the Republican-led House of Representatives intervened earlier this year to defend DOMA, after the Obama Justice Department, nominally the defendant, announced it views the 1996 law as unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, in the Ninth Circuit, anybody seeking recognition of a same-sex marriage in the immigration context faces the 1982 precedent of Adams v. Howerton, in which the circuit upheld the Immigration Service's denial of an I-130 petition on behalf of a same-sex couple who married in Colorado (a county clerk having issued a license because the state had a gender-neutral marriage statute that no court had yet construed to bar same-sex unions). The appeals court in Adams rejected all arguments by the petitioners, including claims of sex discrimination and Fifth Amendment due process and equal protection violations.

Adams has never been overruled or disavowed by the Ninth Circuit and so is binding on all trial judges in that circuit.

Ironically, the 1982 decision was written by Anthony Kennedy, who as a Supreme Court justice wrote the opinions in 1996’s Romer v. Evans, which struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2 barring state and local gay rights laws, and 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the remaining sodomy laws –– two landmark decisions that laid the foundation for the current legal assaults on DOMA.

“In Adams, the Ninth Circuit held that 'Congress's decision to confer spousal status… only upon the parties to heterosexual marriages has a rational basis and therefore comports with the due process clause and its equal protection requirements,’” Judge Wilson wrote. “The fact that DOMA was enacted years after the Ninth Circuit's decision in Adams is not persuasive given that marriage as defined in Section 3 of DOMA is consistent with Adams. While Plaintiffs and Defendants point out the alleged deficiencies in the reasoning in Adams, this Court is not in a position to decline to follow Adams or critique its reasoning simply because Plaintiffs and Defendants believe that Adams is poorly reasoned.”

Metro Weekly, an LGBT newspaper in Washington, reported earlier this month that the Justice Department had challenged the House leadership’s reliance on Adams in its brief in the case.

Wilson pointed out that the prerogative to overturn a Ninth Circuit precedent “rests not with this District Court,” but with the circuit or the Supreme Court.