Ninth Circuit Holds Unconstitutional Arizona Law Targeting Same-Sex Partners of State Employees

Earlier this week, a panel of Ninth Circuit judges held in Diaz v. Brewer that an Arizona bill withdrawing health benefits for domestic partners of state employees violated the federal Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

The state originally offered these benefits to spouses of state employees, but in April 2008 expanded coverage to include both same-sex and different-sex domestic partners. In September 2009, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that restricted benefits once again only to (different-sex) spouses. Several state employees whose same-sex partners would lose their much-needed health benefits if the bill went into effect brought this suit to enjoin the governor and relevant state officials from implementing the new law. Represented by Lambda Legal—the largest legal organization working for the civil rights of LGBT people—the employees challenged the law as violating the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Though a state, as an employer, is not required to offer benefits to its employees, when it chooses to give some employees benefits, it must do so in an even-handed manner. The plaintiffs in this case argued, and the Ninth Circuit agreed, that the Arizona law impermissibly targeted employees in same-sex relationships.

The defendants in the case argued that the law withdrew benefits for different-sex domestic partners just as it did for same-sex domestic partners and thus that the law did not single out any particular class of individuals. However, this argument conveniently overlooks a crucial difference between same-sex partners in Arizona and similarly situated different-sex partners. The different-sex partners can simply marry each other to retain their state-provided benefits, whereas both statute and constitutional amendment prohibit celebration or recognition of marriage between two persons of the same sex in the state of Arizona.

The Ninth Circuit found that the law’s classification of employees was not “rationally related” to any legitimate state interest and thus inferred from the classification an intent to discriminate against employees with same-sex domestic partners, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Given that the Ninth Circuit may soon rule on the merits of the high-profile same-sex marriage case Perry v. Brown (formerly Perry v. Schwarzenegger), the panel’s decision in Diaz may have some bearing on that case—if not its outcome then at least its reasoning.