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Benefits Appeal by Gay Veteran Is at an End

(CN) - The Obama administration no longer bans the same-sex spouses of military veterans from collecting benefits so a legal challenge of the statute is moot, a federal appeals court ruled.

After the Board of Veterans' Appeals denied the benefits application of military veteran Carmen Cardona for her wife in August 2011, she took her case to the U.S. Court of Appeals For Veterans Claims.

The appeal was stayed pending the Supreme Court's consideration of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor.

In its June 2013 resolution of that case, the high court deemed unconstitutional a provision of DOMA that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. President Barack Obama then directed the executive branch to stop enforcing section 101(31) of DOMA, which limits veterans benefits to married couples of the opposite sex.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki promptly moved to remand Carmona's case to the veterans' board.

That statute is still on the books, however, and Carmona opposed the motion for fear that a future administration could reverse course and cut off her spousal benefits. She argued that the veterans appeals court should rule on her challenge to section 101(31).

Though Shinseki insisted that Carmona's case was moot because she had received the spousal benefits, Carmona wanted the appellate court to apply the so-called "voluntary cessation exception" to the mootness argument.

The exception is based on the concern that a party voluntarily giving up enforcement of a law could be attempting to manipulate the judicial process and evade court review of the law.

To support her case Carmona pointed to a decision by President Ronald Reagan's administration to enforce a statute that his predecessor President Jimmy Carter's attorney general had stopped defending.

Carmona also argued that the public interest in settling the law's legality outweighs the secretary's contention that the case is moot.

A three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C., sided with Shinseki on Tuesday.

Citing precedent from several federal appellate court rulings, the panel found Carmona's fears were mere speculation, and that the Obama administration's new approach was "a genuine, good faith change in policy" based on the Supreme Court's Windsor ruling.

"The appellant provides only speculation about what could happen," the unsigned ruling states. "But there is no indication based on the secretary's past and present actions that he will reverse course on this issue, or that a future secretary will act counter to the president's directive and specifically attempt to discontinue the benefits of veteran's in the appellant's position."

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