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US Supreme Court strikes down DOMA as unconstitutional

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On its last day of the 2012 term, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its highly anticipated decisions involving same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples in states that recognize same-sex marriage received a victory from the court when the majority struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.

The 5-4 decision is confined to only those in lawful marriages. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the majority decision, writing the Act is a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.

The ruling in United States v. Windsor, executor of the Estate of Spyer, et al., 12-307, will entitle those couples to equal treatment under federal law with regard to income taxes and Social Security benefits.

The decision involves New York resident Edith Windsor – who was in a legally recognized same sex-marriage with Thea Spyer – seeking to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses after Spyer died in 2009. Windsor was barred from doing so by Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which excludes same-sex partners as spouses. Windsor ended up paying more than $360,000 in estate taxes and sought a refund.

The Department of Justice decided not to defend Section 3’s constitutionality, and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives intervened. The lower courts held the section is unconstitutional and that Windsor is entitled to a refund.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented.

Scalia wrote in a dissent that Wednesday’s decision has cheated both sides, “robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better.”

In his dissent, Alito wrote, “To the extent that the Court takes the position that the question of same-sex marriage should be resolved primarily at the state level, I wholeheartedly agree. I hope that the Court will ultimately permit the people of each State to decide this question for themselves. Unless the Court is willing to allow this to occur, the whiffs of federalism in the today’s opinion of the Court will soon be scattered to the wind.”

The Supreme Court decided in Hollingsworth, et al. v. Perry, et al, 12-144, that the petitioners – proponents of Proposition 8 in California which defines marriage as between a man and woman – did not have standing to appeal the District Court’s ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the petitioners did have standing and affirmed the District Court’s order on the merits.

“We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here,” Roberts wrote for the majority.

Associate Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

Indiana had authored an amicus brief in Windsor, which was joined by 16 states; Indiana co-authored with Virginia an amicus brief in Hollingsworth.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller released a statement shortly after the decisions came down, saying, “While my office is duty bound to defend the authority of our state legislature and their decisions, I recognize that people have strongly held and vastly different views on the issue of marriage and ask that everyone show respect with civility to our Supreme Court and our constitutional system.  Regardless of the different views people may hold, marriage should be a source of unity and not division.”

Indiana Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he’s confident the matter of same-sex marriage will come before the General Assembly and be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.

“I am disappointed the federal Defense of Marriage Act has been overturned. I am certainly pleased the Supreme Court has confirmed each state’s right to address the legal issue of what constitutes one of the most important institutions in our society,” he said. “As they have in 30 other states, Hoosiers should have the right to speak on this issue.”

Indiana Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said it’s important that Indiana is a state that is welcoming to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.

“Study after study shows growing support for marriage equality for all Hoosiers. We must ensure that our policies reflect this evolving sentiment,” he said. “It is my hope that lawmakers can put this divisive debate behind them, and focus on the priorities that matter to every Hoosier family - a strong economy, good schools, and thriving local communities.”

The justices also released Sekhar v. United States, 12-357. The court unanimously held that attempting to compel a person to recommend that his employer approve an investment does not constitute “the obtaining of property from another” under the Hobbs Act.

The Supreme Court reversed Sekhar’s conviction of attempted extortion under the Act, which is defined as “obtaining the property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” The state comptroller of New York’s general counsel received anonymous emails demanding that he recommend investing in a fund managed by FA Technology Ventures. Some of those emails were traced to the home computer of Sekhar, a managing partner of the firm.

The jury specified that the property Sekhar attempted to extort was the general counsel’s recommendation to approve the investment. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

“The Government’s defense of the theory of conviction is unpersuasive. No fluent speaker of English would say that ‘petitioner obtained and exercised the general counsel’s right to make a recommendation,’ any more than he would say that a person ‘obtained and exercised another’s right to free speech,’” states the opinion, delivered by Scalia.

 

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