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9th Circuit rules Az must continue benefits for same-sex partners
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9th Circuit rules Az must continue benefits for same-sex partners

A federal appeals court Tuesday upheld a ruling that blocked an Arizona law that would have denied health coverage to domestic partners of state employees.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court that said the law could cause “irreparable harm” to same-sex couples in the state.

The appeals court also said the state had failed to prove that there was a compelling state interest in denying the coverage.

“We are thrilled with decision today,” said Tara L. Borelli, an attorney for the state employees who sued to block implementation of the law. She said the courts “recognized equal pay for equal work must apply to gay and straight Arizonans.”

But a spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer said the benefits were eliminated for unmarried couples, whether straight or gay, in an attempt to save money for the cash-strapped state.

The spokesman, Matthew Benson, said Tuesday’s ruling “flies in the face of logic and law” and actually creates inequality, by giving same-sex couples benefits but not giving them to unmarried straight couples.

Both the district and circuit court rejected that argument, noting that straight couples could maintain their state benefits by getting married but that gay couples cannot be married in Arizona.

Nine state employees sued Brewer as well as the interim director of the Arizona Department of Administration and two other ADOA officials to block the law and keep their partners’ benefits.

The employees who sued are in long-term relationships with their same-sex partners. They had signed up for medical coverage for their partners in 2008, when the state began offering health-care benefits for unmarried domestic partners of state employees, as well as the children of those couples.

But in November 2008, state voters approved an amendment to the Arizona Constitution that defined marriage as being “between one man and one woman.” State lawmakers followed a year later, by redefining “dependents” as “spouses,” in essence eliminating the benefit for unmarried partners.

That change was scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2011, but the group of gay state workers sued to block its implementation. They said the new law left them without a way to provide the same kind of coverage for their families.

The appeals court pointed to one of the state employees in the suit, Joseph Diaz, who has been in a relationship for 17 years with Ruben Jimenez. It said Jimenez left a job with health benefits for a better-paying job without benefits because he had coverage through Diaz.

Jimenez, who has high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, would not now be able to find coverage on his own and would not qualify for indigent health care, the court said. Without coverage, his medications would cost $300 a month.

A district judge in 2010 agreed to block enforcement of the law while the suit was pending. The appellate court on Tuesday agreed.

Borelli said the ruling upholds “well-established principles of law.”

“It’s clear there are no excuses for discriminatory law that would strip coverage from workers’ families,” she said.

Benson said the governor’s office is still reviewing the opinion and had not ruled out the possibility of another appeal.

If it does, Borelli said, “We will continue to mount a vigorous defense on today’s victory if need be.”

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