In a tensely-awaited decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented married same sex couples from enjoying the same benefits and protections of federal law as other married couples. The law affected some 1,000 federal statutes, including areas such as Social Security, housing, taxes, criminal sanctions, copyright, and veterans’ benefits. In the specific case, U.S. v Windsor, a New York woman would have had to pay more than $300,000 in estate taxes on her inheritance from her spouse that she would not have had to pay if she had been married to a man.
A 5-4 majority of the court ruled that this was a “deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”
From the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy (a Reagan appointee) and joined by four liberal justices:
“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. 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.”
The full opinion is here.
(The question of who can legally marry is a matter of state law. Currently 12 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a map.)
In a separate opinion today, the Supreme Court declined to wade into the battle over marriage in California, in an effective victory for supporters of same-sex marriage. Voters in California had passed a ballot initiative known as Proposition 8, amending the State Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Same sex couples successfully challenged the law in federal court. Now opponents of gay marriage had asked the Supreme Court to reverse that decision, but today the top court said today that the groups who brought the case did not have legal standing to bring the case because they did not have a personal stake in the outcome. (California officials could have had standing to bring the case but Gov. Jerry Brown and the state attorney general had declined to appeal the ruling.)
“No matter how deeply committed petitioners may be to upholding Proposition 8, that is not a particularized interest sufficient to create a case or controversy under Article III [of the U.S. Constitution],” states the opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan.
Roberts’ opinion portrays the decision as one in which the top court was seeking to respect the limits on its own jurisdiction (which is more limited than that of the Supreme Court of Canada, which is not limited to cases and controversies, but can hear “references” for example.) Wrote Roberts:
“Federal courts have authority under the Constitution to answer such questions only if necessary to do so in the course of deciding an actual “case” or “controversy.” As used in the Constitution, those words do not include every sort of dispute, but only those “historically viewed as capable of resolution through the judicial process.” … This is an essential limit on our power: It ensures that we act as judges, and do not engage in policymaking properly left to elected representatives. For there to be such a case or controversy, it is not enough that the party invoking the power of the court have a keen interest in the issue.”
That full opinion is here.