Ten years to the day after it struck down a Texas sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court finally weighed in on the issue of same-sex marriage. In United States v. Windsor, the Court invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by a vote of 5-4.
The majority held that DOMA — which defines “marriage” for all purposes under federal law as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” — is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Facts of the Case
The State of New York recognizes the marriage of New York residents Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who wed in Ontario, Canada, in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her entire estate to Windsor. Windsor sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, but was barred from doing so DOMA. As explained by the Supreme Court, the law provides “rules of construction for over 1,000 federal laws and the whole realm of federal regulations — to define ‘marriage’ and ‘spouse’ as excluding same-sex partners.”
Windsor paid $363,053 in estate taxes and sought a refund, which the Internal Revenue Service denied. Windsor filed suit, contending that DOMA violates the principles of equal protection incorporated in the Fifth Amendment. While the suit was pending, the Obama Administration announced that it would no longer defend DOMA’s constitutionality. In response, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) of the House of Representatives intervened in the litigation.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
By a slim 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA as unconstitutional. Writing on behalf of Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Anthony Kennedy explains why law must be struck down. “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.”
As Kennedy further notes, “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency… By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect.”
The majority opinion further details the wide-ranging practical implications of DOMA on married same-sex couples, including preventing them from obtaining government healthcare benefits, benefiting from provisions of the Bankruptcy Code and filing joint federal tax returns. The Court also emphasizes the social stigma the law places on couples as well as their children.
“DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, see Lawrence, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”
The Supreme Court does not go so far as to prohibit all laws excluding same-sex marriage, but rather confined its decision to federal law. However, as the dissenting justices aptly noted, the majority left the “second, state-law shoe to be dropped later, maybe next Term.”