Judge orders VA to provide benefits to veterans in same-sex marriages

All things considered, this was probably inevitable.

The Department of Veterans Affairs can no longer rely on its unique reading of federal law to refuse to provide full benefits to a California veteran in a same-sex marriage, a federal judge declared in a ruling filed late Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall of Los Angeles sided with Tracey Cooper-Harris of Pasadena, Calif., a 12-year Army veteran, who sued the VA for denying her full disability benefits because she is married to a woman.

The VA is the defendant in several lawsuits over its assertion that the Supreme Court’s decision in June striking down the Defense of Marriage Act didn’t apply to it.

The “unique reading of federal laws” in question here seems to boil down to the labyrinth of government regulations underlying top level decisions, not all of which are immediately updated when some huge redefinition takes place. Title 38 of the federal code deals with benefits to veterans, spouses, dependents, etc and has long included the definition of “spouse” as being a “person of the opposite sex.” Even though the decision in Windsor v US ran directly afoul of that, the regulations were still on the books and the VA was basing their rulings on them.

Rather than some sort of ideological battle between politically motivated combatants, it looks as if this was just a case of the military community doing what they always do… follow the regulations. This idea is supported by a previous comment on the subject by the department’s Secretary, Eric Shinseki.

“Should the … spousal definitions be revised or determined to be unconstitutional, VA will be prepared to update its policies and systems in a timely manner,” Shinseki wrote Aug. 14.

The judge was apparently not going to be content to wait around for the regulations to be rewritten, and has ordered the VA to take action – at least in this one case – immediately. Don’t be surprised, however, if that regulation gets updated pretty quickly now that this story has hit the press.

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David Strom 8:41 PM on January 30, 2023