Defense of Marriage Act Thrown Out by Supreme Court
A large chunk of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today.
The federal government must recognize same-sex marriages that have been legally performed by the states, the justices ruled in Windsor v. United States. The 5-4 decision does not create a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
Previously, DOMA had blocked LGBT couples from federal marriage benefits, including tax perks, social security and immigration rules. Over 1,000 federal laws and programs are affected by marriage status.
“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,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
The 1996 law had been ruled unconstitutional by two circuit courts in separate rulings. The case that reached the Supreme Court involved Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old woman who had to pay $363,000 in taxes after inheriting her wife’s estate. If she had been married to a man, she would have paid nothing. Today, the court said that the federal government can’t discriminate based on the sex of the people involved in the marriage.
“If you’re validly married in some state, you’re validly married for the purposes of the federal government’s laws,” says Charles S. Sims, a partner at New York firm Proskauer, who previously spent nine years as national staff counsel to the ACLU. Sims points out that the decision most likely extends to people married in foreign countries as well.
The ruling is a historic marker on the ongoing battle for LGBT civil rights. Sims says he was in a meeting with civil liberty advocates two decades ago, discussing how to bring federal benefits to gay couples. “Everybody in the room thought it was never going to happen, it was just pie in the sky,” he says.
Motivated by Animus
Kennedy’s majority decision asserts that DOMA is motivated by animus, with no real purpose other than to harm a particular group of people. “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,” he wrote. “This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class.”
Four justices dissented, claiming that DOMA is in fact constitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito each wrote their own dissent explaining why the federal government should be allowed to discriminate.
“In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us,” Scalia wrote, claiming the court shouldn’t have taken the case at all. “Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better.”
However, it would also be fair to call the decision a restrained one in that it leaves the matter of marriage up to the states, and merely says Washington must recognize their decisions. “The court is not itching to decide the question of whether states need to allow gay marriage if their voters and courts can’t get there on their own,” Sims points out.
Applicable to States
While the decision doesn’t create blanket marriage equality, the language in the majority opinion could be helpful for advocates trying to bring LGBT marriage to the 37 states that don’t yet offer it.
“One thing that’s really important is that the court recognizes that laws of moral disapproval need to be subject to especially careful review,” says Rita F. Lin, a litigation partner at San Francisco-based firm Morrison & Foerster and pro bono co-counsel with the Lambda Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The other important thing to note about the Windsor opinion is that it specifically says that refusing benefits to same sex couples humiliates the children and treats them as second class citizens.”
“There’s no legitimate basis for that,” Lin says. “That logic is really important because it’s equally applicable to states that refuse to recognize long-term committed relationships.”
How the battles will play out on a state-by-state basis remains to be seen, but the fight for equality took a major step forward today.