Last Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction that blocked an Arizona law that would have eliminated health care benefits for same-sex partners of state employees.

Before 2008, health insurance benefits for dependents of Arizona state employees were available only to the spouses and children of those employees. In April of 2008, then-Governor Janet Napolitano implemented a change to the definition of “dependent” to include men and women who live with but are not married to state employees. This expansion of benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners increased the State’s health insurance costs by approximately $3-4 million in 2008-2009 and over $5 million in 2009-2010, according to court documents. Therefore, in an effort to reduce state expenditures, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill in September 2009 that eliminates dependent coverage for non-spouse domestic partners of state employees whether they are of the same or the opposite sex. A group of gay and lesbian state employees filed suit in federal district court, claiming that the law violated their constitutional rights.

The State argued that the policy was neutral because it treated all unmarried employees equally. The district court agreed that the law was not discriminatory on its face because it affected both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, but held that the law had a discriminatory effect because opposite-sex couples could retain their health coverage by marrying, but same-sex couples could not due to a constitutional amendment in Arizona defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. As a result, the district court granted a preliminary injunction temporarily barring the State from enforcing the law against gay and lesbian state employees and their domestic partners.

The State appealed the ruling, arguing that an across-the-board elimination of domestic partner benefits does not violate the constitution because state employees and their families are not constitutionally entitled to health benefits. The Ninth Circuit agreed, but noted that “[w]hen a state chooses to provide such benefits, it may not do so in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner that adversely affects particular groups that may be unpopular.” Essentially adopting the district court’s equal protection analysis, the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling. For now, Arizona will have to continue offering health care benefits to same-sex domestic partners of state employees until there is a full trial on the merits.