DOMA’s unlikely victims: a Washington State lesbian couple’s bankruptcy was the catalyst for an all-out battle over the federal gay marriage ban

DOMA’s unlikely victims: a Washington State lesbian couple’s bankruptcy was the catalyst for an all-out battle over the federal gay marriage ban

C.J. Prince

Lee Kandu’s financial hardship wasn’t supposed to launch her into the national gay rights spotlight. But after she and her wife, Ann, were both diagnosed with cancer in October 2002 and forced to file for bankruptcy a year later, that’s exactly what happened.

On August 17 a federal judge in Washington State ruled that Lee and Ann, who after 13 years together were married in British Columbia last year, could not file for joint bankruptcy because the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act prohibited it. The decision marked the first time a federal court has upheld the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban.

Ann died in March, and now Lee, still fighting ovarian cancer, is planning her appeal and may lose the home the two women shared in Castle Rock, Wash. The bankruptcy court battle “was surreal,” said Kandu, 46, sounding a little hoarse during a telephone interview. Instead of focusing on financial matters, arguments centered on the sanctity of marriage and procreation. Judge Paul B. Snyder heard hours of testimony that included references to 100-year-old court cases and passages from the book of Genesis.

Legal experts said the ruling will carry little if any weight in future challenges to DOMA. But that didn’t stop the Bush administration from treating the case seriously. Kandu said four attorneys from the U.S. Attorney General’s office in Washington, D.C., were flown in to help the federal office in Seattle fight the case, bringing the total number of attorneys defending DOMA to seven, while Kandu could not afford even one. “The federal government and the Bush administration are very serious about blocking [same-sex marriage] rights,” said Lisa Brodoff, clinical professor of law at the Seattle University law school. “This case is just one indication.”

Jenny Pizer, an attorney for gay rights advocacy group Lambda Legal, added that the government’s aggressive posture was particularly disturbing given the tragic circumstances of the case. “What possible public purpose is served by discriminating against her in the bankruptcy law with the additional emotional tragedy of having just lost her partner?” Pizer asked. “Maybe that’s not directly relevant legally, but I hope it affects public understanding of the fundamental rights that are at stake.”

For Lee Kandu, public understanding won’t be enough. The court battle has drained all her money along with the energy she needs to withstand her aggressive cancer treatments. She is still unable to find a pro bono attorney with the necessary expertise, so she will have to file a 50-page brief herself and go alone before the appellate court. And even if she wins, she’s bracing for a fierce counterappeal from the government. “I can’t imagine how many attorneys would show up for the next one,” she said.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Liberation Publications, Inc.

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