In a landmark victory for the gay rights movement, the Supreme Court today voted 5-4 to strike down DOMA, the legislation that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages, in the case of Windsor v. United States. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the majority opinion, wrote, “[The Defense of Marriage Act] imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others…The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others.”
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito joined Chief Justice John Roberts in dissent.
The Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law in 1996, by President Bill Clinton, who recently expressed both his support of gay marriage, and his regret at having signed the law. The Windsor case challenged Section 3 of the legislation, which defines “marriage” as a union between one woman and one man and “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”
Edie Windsor brought the case when her wife and partner of more than 40 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009 and Windsor was denied the federal estate tax deduction afforded to heterosexual surviving spouses. Windsor and Spyer were married in Toronto in 2007, and their marriage was recognized in their state of residence, New York, where same-sex marriage is legal. After Spyer’s death, Windsor was obliged to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes on Spyer’s estate. She sued the federal government in 2010, claiming that Section 3 of DOMA violated her Fifth Amendment right to equal protection. Today, the Supreme Court validated her claim.
Today’s decision grants same-sex couples in the 13 states that recognize gay marriage access to more than 1,100 federal benefits already guaranteed to heterosexual couples. These include the right to file joint federal income taxes, collect spousal Social Security benefits, and share assets without being subject to gift taxes. The ruling grants equal federal standing to around 130,000 married same-sex couples in the United States.
The Supreme Court also dismissed Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case centered around California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8. United States District Court Judge Vaughn Walker found that Prop. 8 violated both the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Constitution in 2010, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals supported his ruling in 2012. The Supreme Court dismissed the case on the ground that its defendants had no right to defend the initiative in court.
Prop. 8’s dismissal leaves the lower court’s ruling intact. Marriage will remain legal in California. However, in dismissing the case, the Supreme Court passed up the chance to hand down a broad ruling on the issue of marriage equality. The fight for full marriage equality will continue at a state level.