BOSTON — Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley will be part of the crowd cramming into the Supreme Court Wednesday to hear arguments for and against the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex married couples.
Massachusetts was the first state to challenge DOMA, and it won. That ruling was upheld by the federal appeals court in Boston last year and helped pave the way for the one the high court will hear Wednesday, which involves a New York woman who had to pay $363,000 in estate taxes when her wife died because the federal government did not recognize their same-sex marriage as valid. Coakley has filed a brief in that case urging the Supreme Court to strike down DOMA, and she spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer about the reasons for her crusade.
Martha Coakley: We determined in bringing our suit that there were over 1,000 different restrictions on same-sex married couples based upon federal law. We felt it was not only unfair to those parties, particularly, but also unfair to Massachusetts because we essentially had to keep two sets of books and it really said we have two classes of marriage here. It was the discrimination and the effects of the discrimination. And Massachusetts said successfully before the [U.S. Court of Appeals for the] First Circuit that there is no reason for DOMA, there is no rational basis for this kind of insidious discrimination that affects individuals who want to get married, who want to make that commitment, raise their families, be treated as we’ve always treated married people. The federal government is actually the discriminating agent here. That’s the challenge that the plaintiff in New York has brought on the same theory.
Sacha Pfeiffer: And even more broadly, you say that for more than 200 years, states — on their own — have been able to decide they want how to define and regulate marriage. So part of the point here is the feds just need to step back?
Well, certainly in terms of the Defense of Marriage Act. The federal government ordinarily doesn’t get involved in the kinds of restrictions or requirements around marriage, and it was a federal discriminatory act. That’s exactly right.
You are the chief law enforcement officer in the very first state to legalize gay marriage, and this is an issue that you have really thrown yourself into in your official capacity. Of all the many law enforcement issues on your plate, why do you consider this one that you should be spending so much of your professional time on?
I think that, as we’ve seen here, the march towards fairness, the march towards equality. People I’ve gone to law school with, people that I’ve worked with, friends, neighbors, part of what’s happened all over the country. It is the personal stories of people who have suffered from discrimination, who are only saying, “We want the rights that others have.” This is just an issue where not only should government be making sure that life is fair, it certainly should not be making life harder.
What about your personal stake in this? Do you have a personal or philosophical motivation in addition to what you view as your official obligation?
You know, I came to age in law school trying to understand a lot of issues, particularly on women and gender orientation and sex discrimination at work and in the workplace. I have come to believe that so many of the things we have always taken for granted or we think are fair, when you start to examine them, really are unfair. And as we have fought to level that playing field on all of those fronts, it’s been rewarding to bring these cases and to make those who would discriminate try and defend what it is they do.
Your legal brief says that there are “scant rationales” for Congress to support DOMA. What do you think are the rationales for supporting DOMA that might be most persuasive to the Supeme Court?
I actually can’t think of any, to be honest with you, because all of the arguments that have been made to support the Defense of Marriage Act in terms of the need for procreation, for instance, the need for civility, all of which I’ve seen debunked in my life as a prosecutor of child abuse and domestic violence. Certainly opposite-sex couples have no market on being fair, having stable families.
This is an issue that goes to the old prejudices that say only conventional families are the appropriate ones. We have a country where 50 percent of couples get divorced in their first marriage. I’ve seen children abused by their biological parents. I’ve come to believe that this is about fairness for people who are just asking to be treated equally, to take on those rights and responsibilities that everyone grows up thinking about — getting married, having a home, having a family. Those are fundamental rights and they’re building blocks of a society that we say we value. And I hope that the Supreme Court will be able to see that.