Wednesday, June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision in the case of U.S. v. Windsor the federal Defense of Marriage Act was in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, declaring section 3 of the federal statute invalid. The ruling found DOMA’s principal effect was to serve to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. DOMA therefore contrived to deprive some couples married under the laws of their state, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities.
The high court opined DOMA created two contradictory marriage regimes within the same state. It also forced same-sex couples to live as married for the purposes of state law but unmarried for the purposes of federal law. They ruled this diminishes the stability and predictability of basic personal relations New York found it proper to acknowledge and protect.
Shortly after the decision, President Barack Obama said in a statement, “This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it. We are a people who declared that we are all created equal — and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Justices John G. Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito filed dissenting opinions.
The constitutionality of the law came into question as a result of the denial of an estate tax refund to Edith Windsor by the Internal Revenue Service. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were wed in Ontario, Canada in 2007. Their marriage was recognized by the state of New York, where they resided. Spyer died in 2009 and left her entire estate to Windsor. The IRS refused to recognize Windsor’s claim of federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses based on section 3 of DOMA.
The Obama administration declined to defend the statute. Instead, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives, which formed in response the Attorney General’s notification, argued in favor.
Estate tax exemption was just one of numerous federal laws and regulations affected by DOMA. It modified rules of construction for over a thousand federal laws and the whole realm of federal regulations to define “marriage” and “spouse” as excluding same-sex partners. Among the federal statutes and regulations DOMA controlled were laws pertaining to Social Security, housing, taxes, criminal sanctions, copyright, and veterans’ benefits.
In the majority opinion, DOMA was viewed as rejecting the long established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each state. They may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one state to the next.
The ruling determined a state’s power in defining marital relation to be of central relevance in this case, quite apart from principles of federalism. A state’s decision to give a class of persons the right to marry therefore confer upon them a dignity and status of immense import. When New York used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in a particular way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community. DOMA was judged departed from a history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage.
Justice Kennedy cited, “[D]iscriminations of an unusual character especially suggest careful consideration to determine whether they are obnoxious to the constitutional provision.”
Consideration of court jurisdiction received particular attention in the majority opinion. The decision to hear the case was not considered as a precedent for the executive to seek judicial remedies in lieu of making a case to Congress. Such would be considered to undermine the integrity of the political process, if such referrals became routine exercise. In this case, however, the Supreme Court determined, among other considerations, a judicial determination was of immediate importance to the federal government and hundreds of thousands of persons. It also determined if the court did not act there assuredly would result an unwieldy tangle of litigation tying up lower courts for an indefinitely long period.
The majority opinion read, “The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws. … While the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does, the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes that Fifth Amendment right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.
“The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the state. DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a state entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the state finds to be dignified and proper.”
While the court went to great lengths to consider matters of division and separation of powers, the merits of the case appear to have been settled unambiguously by those signing onto the ruling.