SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Gene Balas and Carlos Morales were facing health problems and crushing financial pressures plaguing many U.S. households when they decided to file bankruptcy as a married couple.
The Obama administration said they couldn't, citing the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
On Monday, 20 of 24 judges sitting on the country's largest consumer bankruptcy court sided with the gay couple. In doing so, the court took the extraordinary step of declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
The ruling is the first such attack of the Defense of Marriage Act in bankruptcy court, and it adds to the building pressure on the Obama administration to make good on a February pledge to stop defending the law in court.
Balas and Morales were among the 18,000 Californian same-sex couples who wed Aug. 30, 2008, during the brief period when gay marriages were legal in the state.
"It is hurtful to hear my own government say that my marriage is not valid for purposes of federal law," Balas said in a court filing.
Balas said he was laid off from his $200,000-a-year job in the financial industry in March 2009. The couple said they share all income and expenses.
"All the property that either of us owns is community property, and all of our debts are community debts," said Morales, who has spent most of the relationship unemployed. "We have no prenuptial agreement, postnuptial agreement or transmutation agreement."
The ruling written by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Donovan wasn't the first blow to the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. That came last year when a federal judge in Boston declared the law an unconstitutional violation of equal protection guarantees. Two other bankruptcy courts have also rejected administration attempts to dismiss joint filings made by same-sex couples, but neither of those rulings addressed the constitutionality of the act.
Monday's strongly worded ruling contributes to the legal assault on the Defense of Marriage Act and puts added pressure on the Obama administration to stop defending the law.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in February that the U.S. Department of Justice would "remain parties to the cases and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation" despite the administration's view that the law was unconstitutional.
After the administration's announcement, a House of Representatives committee hired former Solicitor General Paul Clement to defend the Defense of Marriage Act against federal court challenges.
In May, U.S. Trustee Peter Anderson, who represents the federal government's bankruptcy interests in Southern California, told the judge the Obama administration opposed the gay couple's petition to give the Congressional committee a chance to join the case in support of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler declined to comment.
The judge noted Monday that the committee didn't respond to requests to join the case.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the committee can't afford to respond to every legal challenge to DOMA.
"Bankruptcy cases are unlikely to provide the path to the Supreme Court, where we imagine the question of constitutionality will ultimately be decided," Buck said. "Obviously we believe the statute is constitutional in all its applications, including bankruptcy, but effectively defending it does not require the House to intervene in every case, especially when doing so would be prohibitively expensive."
Clement and the committee have responded to at least seven separate legal challenges across the country, lawyers said.
Without hearing a detailed defense of the 15-year-old law, Judge Donovan ruled Monday the Defense of Marriage Act violates the couple's equal protection guarantees. He added there is "no valid governmental basis for DOMA."
Nineteen of Donovan's 23 colleagues on the Los Angeles bankruptcy court signed the opinion. The couple's lawyer, Robert Pfister, said that's significant because it shows an overwhelming majority of that court is prepared to rule similarly.
"Litigating constitutional issues takes a lot of time and money," Pfister said. "To have 20 judges sign on sends a strong message that almost the entire bench has decided this important constitutional issue."