U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS strikes down DOMA, which banned federal benefits to married gay couples

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The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act that bans federal benefits to same-sex married couples.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion (PDF) finding an equal protection violation under the Fifth Amendment.

“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a state entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” Kennedy wrote in the 5-4 decision. “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.”

The plaintiff in the case, Edith Windsor, had to pay an estate tax of about $360,000 because her same-sex marriage in Canada was not recognized under DOMA.

The Obama administration didn’t defend DOMA, so House GOP leaders stepped in to defend the law. Despite its legal stance, the executive branch continued to deny Windsor a tax refund. As a result there was a justiciable controversy and Article III jurisdiction, Kennedy said. He also cited “unusual and exigent circumstances”—including a lack of guidance that could affect hundreds of thousands of persons—justifying the court’s jurisdiction.

Windsor lived in New York, which recognizes and allows gay marriages, as do 11 other states and the District of Columbia. States have long had the authority, subject to constitutional constraints, to define and regulate marriage, Kennedy said.

New York’s law “reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality,” Kennedy said. “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government.”

DOMA has the effect of imposing “a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages” approved by the states, he said. The “principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.”

Because of DOMA, Kennedy said, same-sex married couples couldn’t obtain government health-care benefits available to heterosexual couples, couldn’t be buried together in veterans cemeteries, couldn’t obtain special protections in bankruptcy, and couldn’t file taxes jointly unless they followed a complicated procedure. They also had to pay taxes on health-care benefits provided to spouses by employers, and lost Social Security benefits allowed for the death of a spouse.

Dissenting opinions were filed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent and part of Alito’s dissent. Roberts also joined part of Scalia’s dissent.

Alito’s dissent found no constitutional violation. The opinions by Scalia and Roberts said the court had no jurisdiction, but went on to opine that DOMA is constitutional. “We have no power to decide this case,” Scalia wrote. “And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation.”

Roberts stressed an additional point: that the logic of the majority opinion does not decide whether states may ban gay marriage.

The case is United States v. Windsor. SCOTUSblog had early coverage of the opinion.

ABA President Laurel Bellows released a statement calling the decision “a historic milestone in America’s quest for equal protection for all.”

“Since the American Bar Association’s founding, we have taken special responsibility for protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, including the elimination of bias and discrimination,” Bellows said. “We have repeatedly advocated for eliminating discrimination against gay and lesbian people. The rights of all Americans guaranteed under the Constitution are supported with the court’s decision today.”

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Would a gay-rights victory on DOMA include a ‘constitutional Trojan horse’?”

ABAJournal.com: “DOMA violates equal protection with ‘discriminatory burdens’ on same-sex spouses, says ABA brief”

ABAJournal.com: “US brief backs right to gay marriage in California in ‘eight-state solution’ stance”

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: Same-sex marriage battle goes before the Supreme Court”

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