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Coakley Cheers Supreme Court’s Striking Down DOMA

BOSTON — Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is applauding the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, released Wednesday, that strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act.

And she hasn’t only been watching the court’s actions from the sidelines. Coakley filed a brief in the case that urged the court to overturn the federal law, which had defined marriage as between a man and a woman and denied federal benefits to same-sex married couples.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Coakley Wednesday.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Was there anything in particular about this ruling today that stood out to you in terms of the justices’ opinions?

Martha Coakley: I think Justice Kennedy’s decision and the language that he uses and the terms in which he describes the reason why he finds this is a violation of the law, why it’s unconstitutional, I think should give a lot of comfort to same-sex couples and those states that want to enlarge people’s rights to marry. He talks about it in terms of the discriminatory effect of a two-tier system of the discrimination on couples and their children. And so, in some sense, although it is today limited to striking down DOMA for those states where same-sex marriage is the law in the state, it is a slightly broader opinion than that.

It sounds like you felt like rather than the decision just focusing on the nuts and bolts of the thousand or so federal benefits that gay married couples will now qualify for, it was more about larger issues of equality and what many same-sex couples consider dignity.

I think it did engage in that discussion about the need to not discriminate against those people who would marry somebody they love and bring families up and take on all the rights and responsibilities that we always view as a key and a cornerstone of a stable society.

Could today’s rulings energize gay marriage opponents to step up their efforts? For example, passing laws that define marriage as between a man and a woman or that ban same-sex marriage?

Well, potentially, I suppose. But there had been that energy, to some extent, around state legislatures, state activities. I guess we’ll have to wait and see on that. But I don’t think that that is where public opinion is headed, and even though 5 or 10 years ago some elected leaders might have found comfort in the fact that people either didn’t know about gay marriage or they feared it allowed them to take those kinds of actions. But I think these days that elected officials who continue to try and discriminate in their own states, who say, “Well, we have to change this,” I think they will face the wrath of their voters at the polls if they continue to push those discriminatory views.

Attorney General, under you, Massachusetts was the first state to challenge DOMA. So does today’s ruling feel like a personal victory as well as a legal one?

It is a personal victory for our office, for our team, for the plaintiffs that we worked with. And because we were the first and, frankly, the only state to challenge DOMA, when we were able to say. “We, the Commonwealth, don’t want to discriminate,” I think it added a different level to the argument at the federal court, at the First Circuit. And as I was able to listen to the arguments at the Supreme Court, I think the work that we did in Massachusetts certainly had an impact on some of the questions the judges asked, the way they thought about it. And I think you can see the influence of our case in some of the language that Justice Kennedy has used.

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