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Bankruptcy court finds DOMA unconstitutional

SAN FRANCISCO — The country’s largest consumer bankruptcy court has sided with a gay couple seeking to file a joint bankruptcy petition, taking the extraordinary step of deciding the federal law prohibiting same-sex marriages is unconstitutional.

The Los Angeles-based court made the ruling Monday in the case of Gene Balas and Carlos Morales, who wed during the 2008 window when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in California.

“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.”

Monday’s strongly worded ruling by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Donovan is the first such attack of the Defense of Marriage Act in bankruptcy court and adds to the legal assault on the law. A federal judge in Boston last year declared the law violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection. 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.

Nineteen of Donovan’s 23 colleagues on the 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.”

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 and said “there is no valid governmental basis for DOMA.”

The ruling adds to the building pressure on the Obama administration to make good on its February pledge to stop defending the law in court.

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.

The judge noted Monday that the committee didn’t respond to requests to join the case.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler declined to comment. Clement didn’t return phone and email messages.