A federal judge ordered the Social Security Administration to pay benefits to the surviving partners of same-sex couples who had been denied the opportunity to marry sooner due to state marriage bans.
The case centered around Michael Ely and James A. Taylor, a committed Arizona couple of 43 years who wed shortly after the Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage bans nationwide in June 2014. Six months later, Taylor died of cancer. But when Ely applied for federal survivor benefits, he was denied because federal law requires couples be married for at least nine months in order to qualify. The fact that the couple had been illegally banned from marrying sooner was deemed immaterial.
The case was brought in 2019 by the LGBT advocacy group Lambda Legal as a class action suit, arguing that the Social Security Administration "cannot rely upon unconstitutional state laws that have since been overturned to justify discriminating against same-sex surviving spouses today."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Macdonald agreed with that reasoning, writing that "reliance on an unconstitutional law" perpetuated an "unconstitutional infringement on Mr. Ely and Mr. Taylor’s fundamental right to marriage.”
Lambda Legal counsel Peter Renn called the ruling a "tremendous victory" for surviving same-sex spouses nationwide. "No one should be penalized for being the victim of discrimination. The denial of access to these critical benefits can have dire consequences, with some of our class members experiencing homelessness," Renn said.