In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down section three of the Defense of Marriage Act known as DOMA, which defined marriage at the federal level as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” Prior to today, this meant same-sex legally married couples were ineligible for any federal benefits, including the estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, upon which this case was predicated. However, this will all change today, with the Supreme Court’s historic decision.
The case presented to the Supreme Court involved two women, Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were legally married in Canada in 2007. The couple lived in New York where their Canadian marriage was recognized under New York law as a valid marriage. Upon her death in 2009, Spyer left Windsor her entire estate. Because their marriage was not recognized by the federal government as a result of DOMA, Windsor could not qualify for the estate tax exemption otherwise afforded opposite sex married couples, and owed the federal government $363,000 in estate taxes. Windsor then brought suit seeking a refund in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York contending DOMA violates the guarantee of equal protection provided by the Fifth Amendment.
The District Court found DOMA unconstitutional and ordered the U.S. Treasury to refund Windsor the taxes she paid. The case, however, was appealed to Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where the judgment of the District Court was affirmed. The case was again appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. Though President Obama informed the Court that the Department of Justice would not defend DOMA, the Court found it had the authority to rule on the case because the Treasury Department had yet to issue a refund to Windsor despite the orders from the District Court. Therefore, the Court concluded both parties were at risk of injury, the Treasury having to pay and Windsor not getting her refund, if the question regarding DOMA’s constitutionality was not resolved.
In striking down section 3 of DOMA, the Supreme Court stated that regulating marriage has long been regarded as a province of the States, and that DOMA “departs from this history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage.” In recognizing same-sex marriages of other states and then allowing same-sex marriage under its own laws, New York provided same-sex couples with protection and dignity. “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles.”
Justice Kennedy writes “DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriage.” DOMA’s “demonstrated purpose is to ensure that if any State decided to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law.” Kennedy emphasizes that “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code.” “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.”
DOMA affected many aspects of married and family life here in Maryland. Now, same-sex married couples can, among other rights, obtain government health care benefits, invoke special protections for domestic-support obligations under the bankruptcy code, file federal tax returns, be buried together in veteran’s cemeteries, sponsor a spouse to be a U.S. citizen, and obtain spousal benefits under the Social Security Act.
The Supreme Court also rendered a decision on California’s Proposition 8. The Court held that the proponents of Proposition 8 did not have standing to pursue the appeal of the Federal District Court’s decision finding Proposition 8 unconstitutional. The Court explains, in order to have standing, which gives the court authority to decide an issue, the parties must suffer a personal injury.
Proposition 8 made its way to the Supreme Court, when in 2008 the California voters, by referendum, overruled the California Supreme Court which held California’s statute limiting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples was a violation of the equal protection clause in the State’s constitution. Two same-sex couples chose to challenge Proposition 8, and filed suit in the Federal District Court naming California’s governor (then Schwarzenegger), attorney general, and other state officials as defendants. The State officials refused to defend Proposition 8, however, the District Court allowed private citizen proponents of Proposition 8 to defend it. After a 12-day bench trial, the District Court found Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and ordered the State of California and its officials to stop enforcing it. The proponents of Proposition 8 appealed the case to the 9th Circuit, which affirmed the District Court’s decision. They again appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
In deciding the case, the Supreme Court found that neither party was facing “injury” which gives the Supreme Court the authority to decide a case under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The same-sex couples who brought suit won their case in the Federal District Court, and therefore were no longer injured by Proposition 8. The proponents of Proposition 8, which were private citizens and not State officials, therefore suffered no injury as a result of the District Court’s decision, and could not seek redress in the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. Without either party suffering injury, the Supreme Court vacated the decision of the Ninth Circuit ordering it to dismiss the appeal. As a result, the Federal District Court’s decision stands, that being that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, and same-sex marriage is once again legal in California.
California’s current governor, Edmund G. Brown, issued a statement shortly after the decision from the Supreme Court, ordering the California Department of Public Health to advise the State’s counties that they must begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as soon as the case is dismissed. California will become the 13th State with marriage equality and as with California, we can only hope the rest of the nation will follow.