The Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday in a 5-4 decision that 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 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,” Kennedy wrote. “It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
The majority pointed out the decision and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages. The ruling will allow those couples equal treatment under federal law with regard to income taxes and Social Security benefits.
The decision in United States v. Windsor, executor of the Estate of Spyer, et al., 12-307, deals with 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. She 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 decided to intervene. The lower courts held the section is unconstitutional and that Windsor is entitled to a refund.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented.
In Hollingsworth, et al. v. Perry, et al, 12-144, the court ruled 5-4 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.
Because the Supreme Court found the petitioners do not have standing under Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, it has no authority to decide the case on the merits and neither did the 9th Circuit. Roberts delivered the opinion of the court. Once Prop 8 was approved by the voters, the measure became an enacted constitutional amendment or statute in California, and the petitioners have no role in the enforcement of it and therefore have no personal stake in defending its enforcement that is distinguishable from the general interest of every California resident.
“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.
Associate Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor dissented.