Today in 2011: Ninth Circuit affirms injunction against Arizona law stripping benefits from state employee domestic partners

September 6, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryNear the beginning of the Supreme Court’s last term, I wrote a post about several different cases that could come before the Court during that term.

All of those cases involved same-sex marriage or other LGBT rights, and it turned out that two of them – U.S. v. Windsor (then Windsor v. U.S.) and Hollingsworth v. Perry – were not only reviewed by the Supreme Court, but ended up being two of the most anticipated cases from last term.

Another case in my list, Brewer v. Diaz, wasn’t reviewed by the Court, and the justices waited until the day after ruling on Windsor and Perry before denying certiorari for Diaz.

What was the effect of the denial?

The injunction imposed against the enforcement of an Arizona state law remained in place.  This law – the center of the legal challenge – narrowed the scope of the definition of “dependent” for the purpose of the state’s healthcare coverage for its employees to only apply to spouses and their children – thus, eliminating coverage for domestic partners.

The injunction was first imposed with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling two years ago today, on September 6, 2011.

The case was described earlier as an LGBT rights case, which it is, despite the law being billed by the government of the state of Arizona as simply a budgetary cost-cutting measure, but to fully understand why requires a look at the factual background of the case.

In April 2008, Arizona modified its administrative code to offer access to healthcare benefits for qualified opposite-sex and same-sex domestic partners of state employees.  Before that, when state employees chose to participate in the state’s health insurance program, they only had the option to include their spouses and children, since they were the only individuals covered by the state’s definition of “dependent” previous to the April 2008 amendments.

Later that year, though, Proposition 102 (also known as the Marriage Protection Amendment), was approved by Arizona voters.  Proposition 102, as its alternate name implies, modified the Arizona Constitution to limit the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples.

The 2008 election also saw the office of Arizona’s Governor change party affiliations.  Democrat Janet Napolitano resigned from her position as governor on January 21, 2009 to serve as the Secretary of Homeland Security in the newly elected President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

Since Napolitano had no lieutenant governor, the Arizona Secretary of State – Jan Brewer – was next in the line of succession.

A Republican, Jan Brewer played a large role in the flurry of new controversial laws that have emerged from Arizona in the past four years (including the controversial immigration law largely struck down by the Supreme Court in last year’s Arizona v. U.S.).

Another one of these controversial laws, enacted on September 4, 2009, rolled back the changes made by Arizona in April of 2008.  Since Arizona’s constitution now explicitly excludes same-sex couples from marriage in the state, the 2009 law effectively strips away benefits for the same-sex domestic partner of any state employee.

Brewer claimed and continues to claim that this measure was purely budgetary in nature, i.e., that the measure wasn’t intended to specifically target same-sex couples for discrimination, but rather that it was a measure for cutting costs.

This assertion was soundly rebutted by the trial court after a group of challengers sued over the law’s constitutionality.  Specifically, the trial court found that “domestic partner coverage for both same-sex and opposite-sex partners costs the State about $3 million in 2008-2009, in comparison to the $625 million the State spent on health insurance for other employees.”

As such, the 2009 law had a very minimal impact on the state’s budget.

Thus, on July 23, 2010, the trial court issued a preliminary injunction preventing the state from enforcing the law, finding that the challengers were likely to prevail on their claims that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The state appealed, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed exactly two years ago, agreeing with the lower court’s findings.

As stated earlier, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal from the Ninth Circuit, sending the case back to the trial court for a full resolution of the case’s merits.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the case actually makes a statement when viewed in tandem with the Court’s rulings in Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, specifically, that the Court went as far as it wanted for the time being on the issue of same-sex marriage, and that it wants the issue to return to the states for time to further develop.

Diaz will likely be historically regarded as a footnote to Windsor and Perry unless or until the case returns to the Supreme Court after it is fully litigated.

Nevertheless, the case remains important to understanding the underlying legal and political conditions of the nation when the Supreme Court ruled on Diaz’s more well-known contemporaries.