A disabled U.S. Navy veteran is suing the Department of Veteran Affairs to recognize her marriage to her female partner in a lawsuit that challenges two federal laws defining marriage as union between opposite-sex partners.
In a case to be filed before the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the legal team of Carmen Cardona, an 18-year Navy veteran, will argue that the government's definition of marriage violates Cardona's Fifth Amendment right to due process. The suit will also challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
Cardona began receiving disability compensation from the VA for carpal tunnel syndrome, which she developed as a result of her years spend repairing aircraft by hand during her time in the military. Cardona was honorably discharged in 2000 and now works as a correctional officer in for the State of Connecticut.
After Cardona married her longtime partner in 2010 she applied for spousal benefits from the VA, which typically offers an increase in monthly disability compensation when veterans marry. The department rejected her request, citing DOMA.
They [the VA] stated this outright: 'You cannot get benefits...because your spouse is not a male,' Cardona told The Connecticut Post. I'm not the only one that is homosexual, so I would like for everybody to hear about this and come forward.
Cardona held a press conference at Yale Law School on Thursday where she announced the details of the suit. Her legal team includes law-student interns from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
Case Could Set a Legal Precendent
Legal experts say Cardona's case could set a legal precedent for future gay rights litigation, as Cardona is the first plaintiff to use the veterans court of appeals to attack DOMAs constitutionality.
The Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims was created in 1980s to provide an independent judicial body to hear disputes between veterans and the government. Although the Obama administration ordered the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in cases that challenge its constitutionality earlier this year, cases before the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims are usually argued by attorneys from the VA. Therefore, it is possible lawyers from the department will argue in favor of DOMA anyway.
If an appeal is filed, V.A. lawyers will analyze the legal arguments made by the appellant and respond appropriately in its briefs, Josh Taylor, a spokesman for VA, told The New York Times.
The Times reports that even if the VA decides to not defend the federal laws Cardona is challenging, House Speaker John Boehner could potentially hire lawyers to defend the constitutional challenges against DOMA. Plus, even if the government does not defend the laws, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims -- mainly consisting of judges appointed by former President George W. Bush -- could still rule against Cardona.
However, if Cardona loses the appeal she could take her case to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cardona told The New York Times she initially applied for spousal benefits on the advice of a counselor from a veteran's organization, not to make a large legal point about same-sex marriage. However, now she said it is about defending the rights of the approximately 1 million gay and lesbian veterans in the U.S.
We could use the help to pay our mortgage, but this is not only about the money, Cardona said in a statement. President Obama is right that [the Defense of Marriage Act] discriminates against gay and lesbian people. There are many other veterans out there just like me. I am standing up and asking to be treated equally in part to let others know they are not alone.