The United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and rejected an appeal about Proposition 8 on Wednesday, in two significant wins for supporters of same-sex marriages.
Neither ruling established a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but they invalidated one federal law that defined marriage as only a union between a man and a woman, and ended an appeal to reinstate a California referendum that barred same-sex marriages in that state.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a 5-4 decision in United States v. Windsor that the federal law known as DOMA deprived the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Constitution.
“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State,” said Kennedy.
“It also 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,” he added.
In a dissenting decision on DOMA, the Court indicated that it would also strike down California’s Proposition 8 law, due to a lack of standing.
Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed that verdict about 15 minutes later, saying in a 5-4 decision that the petitioners who sought the reaffirm California's Proposition 8 didn’t have the legal ability to appeal a lower court decision. Justice Antonin Scalia joined Roberts in the majority, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor was in the dissenting group (which focused on the rights of private parties to appeal the case).
“The Court does not question California’s sovereign right to maintain an initiative process, or the right of initiative proponents to defend their initiatives in California courts,” said Roberts. “But standing in federal court is a question of federal law, not state law. No matter its reasons, the fact that a State thinks a private party should have standing to seek relief for a generalized grievance cannot override this Court’s settled law to the contrary.”
In United States v. Windsor, the Court had to decide if DOMA violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection for people of the same sex who are legally married under the laws of their state.
The Court heard the Windsor case in March, at the same time it heard another case about same-sex marriages in California.
The question at hand in Windsor was if Congress has the constitutional power to deny married same-sex couples benefits given to opposite-sex couples under about 1,100 federal programs or services.
DOMA was passed by Congress in 1996 after fears that Hawaii’s Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of same-sex marriages. The federal benefits denied by DOMA to married same-sex couples include the right to file a joint tax return and to obtain a Social Security death benefit.
In Windsor, Edith Windsor was contesting a requirement that she pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes inherited from her late same-sex married partner, which she wouldn’t have been obligated to pay if she were married to a man.
The Court also heard arguments in March about Proposition 8 in Hollingsworth v. Perry, which was about a law in California barring same-sex marriages that was later overturned by two other courts.
In Perry, the justices had to decide if the state of California can define marriage as the union of only a man and a woman without violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment—or if parties in the case had the right to even bring it to court.
Proposition 8 was passed in 2008 to amend California’s state constitution to limit marriage to same-sex couples.
Significantly, Governor Jerry Brown refused to defend the constitutionality of the law, which opened up a question about the ability of the group seeking to defend it.
The partnership of long-time Supreme Court litigators David Boies and Theodore Olson, who litigated on opposite sides of Bush v Gore, attracted a lot of attention in the case.
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