The U.S. Supreme Court has issued two rulings that constitute major victories for gays and lesbians seeking marriage equality. On separate votes of 5-4, the justices struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and let stand a trial court decision overturning California’s Prop 8.
“DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment,” the majority held in an opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy. “In determining whether a law is motivated by improper animus or purpose, discriminations of an unusual character especially require careful consideration. DOMA cannot survive under these principles.”
Kennedy was joined by the court’s four liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages,” the opinion continued. “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.”
Case brought by N.Y. widow
The case was brought by New Yorker Edith Windsor, who married her partner of 40 years in 2007 in Canada. When Thea Spyer died two years later she left her estate to Windsor, who was forced to pay $363,000 in taxes on it.
In practice, today’s ruling means legally married couples must be treated equally under federal law, provided they continue to reside in states that recognize their marriages.
The 77-page opinion did not address the question of whether states may continue to recognize only a traditional definition of marriage. Nor did it strike down the section of the law that says states without same-sex marriage don’t have to recognize legal marriages performed elsewhere.
Court may not be done with gay marriage
The fact that the majority held that the decision was a question of equal protection suggests that the high court may not be done with gay marriage, said Morgan Holcomb, a professor at the Hamline University School of Law. Other challenges seeking broader resolution could be accepted by the court in coming years, she said.
In the second case, a different 5-4 majority ruled that backers of California’s Proposition 8, a ballot question outlawing same-sex marriage there, had no legal right to appeal a trial court judge’s decision overturning the ban. The group that pushed the case through several appeals was not a party to the original trial.
After voters approved the constitutional amendment in 2008, two same-sex couples challenged it in federal court. Normally California government officials would have defended the law in court, but they declined to do so.
Prop 8’s backers did not have a right to step in, the Supreme Court held in Hollingsworth v. Perry. The appeal they filed must be dismissed, which leaves the trial court’s order standing.
Majority’s reasoning in Calif. case
“The doctrine of standing, we recently explained, ‘serves to prevent the judicial process from being used to usurp the powers of the political branches,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “In light of this ‘overriding and time-honored concern about keeping the judiciary’s power within its proper constitutional sphere, we must put aside the natural urge to proceed directly to the merits of [an] important dispute and to ‘settle’ it for the sake of convenience and efficiency.”
While the blogosphere immediately depicted the Prop 8 decision as a sign that same-sex marriages could begin again in California, some analysts said closer scrutiny of the opinion was necessary to determine whether it applied to the four named plaintiffs or all Californians.