Federal Judges: Domestic Partners Should Be Considered Married in Non-Marriage Equality States

The administrative decision goes against some existing case law regarding the legal status of same-sex partners who are not married.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

November 26 2013 7:31 PM ET

A three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals declared Monday that same-sex couples in domestic partnerships in states without marriage equality must be recognized as married for the purpose of federal benefits, reports BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner.

Monday's ruling only directly affects the ongoing case of former Oregon federal court clerk Margaret Fonberg, who will now receive back pay to offset the increased health insurance premiums she had to pay when the federal government refused to recognize her domestic partner as her spouse for the purpose of benefits. 

"To quote Joe Biden ‘This is a big fucking deal!’" Fonberg told BuzzFeed via email late Monday. "I’m … beyond thrilled with the decision."

She and her same-sex partner had entered into a legally binding domestic partnership under Oregon law, and in 2009 Fonberg attempted to enroll her partner in a federal health insurance program. When her petition was denied, officials cited the since-gutted federal Defense of Marriage Act, which forbade federal agencies to recognize any same-sex couples as spouses. 

But even with the demise of that provision of DOMA following the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in ruling in June, the three-judge panel considering Fonberg's case determined that such a denial, as it still exists in regard to domestic partnerships in non-marriage equality states, is "plainly discrimination on sexual orientation." The three-judge panel included Alex Kozinski, the chief justice for the Ninth Circuit.  

Geidner notes that Monday's decision runs counter to several other recently litigated cases that determined domestic partnerships or civil unions were inherently unequal to civil marriages. That's the argument equality advocates in New Jersey successfully used to force the state to embrace marriage equality in October. 

Monday's ruling only directly affects Fonberg's case, since hers was a dispute filed when she was an employee within the federal court system. But as Geidner notes, the chief justice's opinion on the matter adds his "weighty voice to buttress arguments that will be made in court cases seeking equal treatment for domestic partnerships or civil unions, particularly where marriage equality is not an option." 

Find an in-depth analysis and the text of the decision at BuzzFeed.

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