U.S. Supreme Court Hears Two Cases Relating to Same-Sex Marriage – Part 2 of 2


This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a second case involving same-sex marriage. United States v. Windsor questions the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, commonly referred to as “DOMA.”

In recent years, DOMA has been the subject of much media attention and political debate. Signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, DOMA is divided into two significant parts. Section 2 of the law says that states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages that other states recognize. Section 3 of the law applies only to the federal government and establishes that in the context of any Congressional act or any rule or regulation promulgated by an administrative agency or bureau, the term “marriage” refers only to a union of one man and one woman and the term “spouse” only refers to a person of the opposite sex.

Section 3 addresses a person’s eligibility for several types of federal benefits, such as federally protected medical and family leave, health insurance, federally regulated inheritance benefits, property division, transfer and consolidation, Social Security and Medicare, and joint tax filings.

Notably, eight federal courts, including the First and Second Circuit Court of Appeals, have found Section 3 unconstitutional on a variety of issues including immigration, estate taxes, public employee benefits, and bankruptcy. Additionally, in February 2011, President Obama’s Administration instructed the Department of Justice to stop defending DOMA in court.

In United States v. Windsor, Section 3 is again being challenged on constitutional grounds. The plaintiff is Ms. Edie Windsor, age 83, who initially sued the federal government after the IRS denied her a $363,000 refund for estate taxes she paid after her partner Thea Spyer died. The IRS cited Section 3 of DOMA as its reason for the denial.

The plaintiff argues that since she would have been entitled to the refund if her partner had been a male, Section 3 violates her equal protection rights established by the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She was successful in both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, as both courts ruled that Section 3 was unconstitutional.

Many commentators expect that the Court will strike down the law. As a growing number of states are recognizing same-sex couples’ marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships, the nationwide sentiment toward same-sex marriage seems to be drastically different from how it was in 1996, when DOMA was passed into law.

In particular, the Court’s more liberal judges are expected to be strongly in favor of striking down the law. However, striking it down could also present other challenges for states and the federal government. For example, a decision striking down the law would impact the majority of states whose laws currently limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. In reality, states likely could not constitutionally limit marriage to opposite-sex couples if the Supreme Court strikes down the law.

Along with Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case confronting California’s Proposition 8, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision on Windsor in June or July. The decisions in both of these cases will likely affect marriage on a nationwide level. We will continue to keep readers updated on the progresses of these cases.

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