With the Supreme Court's rulings today, the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages is no more. And the Proposition 8 law that barred same-sex couples from marrying in California is once again overturned, clearing the way for the return of marriage equality to the state.
California attorney general Kamala Harris, who along with Gov. Jerry Brown refused to defend Prop. 8 in court, urged the lower court to lift its stay and allow same-sex marriages to resume in California "immediately," according to the Los Angeles Times. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued a stay of district judge Vaughn Walker's 2010 decision striking down Prop. 8 as unconstitutional while the appeal wound its way to the nation's highest court, is expected to take the allotted 25 days to formalize the Supreme Court's ruling and lift the stay, allowing same-sex couples to marry in California by the end of next month.
The Supreme Court's decision that section 3 of the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional means that legally married same-sex couples can begin claiming a litany of federal benefits immediately, according to The New York Times. Section 3 prevented the federal government from recognizing these marriages.
In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the nation's highest court ruled that DOMA denies equal protection to a group of people protected by the Fifth Amendment for no other reason than the group's political unpopularity.
"By seeking to injure the very class New York seeks to protect, DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government," writes Kennedy in the majority decision, which was joined by justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer. "The Constitution’s guarantee of equality 'must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot' justify disparate treatment of that group. … DOMA cannot survive under these principles."
While the death of DOMA does not establish marriage equality nationwide, it does mean that any federal statute that refers to "marriage" or a "spouse" must apply with equal force to legally married same-sex couples, according to SCOTUSBlog. That will have major implications for married same-sex couples, who can now file joint federal tax returns, as well as members of the military who are married to same-sex spouses; these couples can now be recognized by the Department of Defense to receive the same benefits and protections offered to the spouses of straight soldiers.
The decision also clears the way for binational couples to sponsor their foreign-born same-sex spouses for U.S. citizenship, according to Immigration Equality.
"DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty," the opinion said in ruling it unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Roberts made clear, though, that the court did not consider in its DOMA ruling whether states have the right to use "the traditional definition of marriage."
On Proposition 8, the Supreme Court ruled by dismissing the appeal by those who challenged the decision overturning it. The majority ruled the Prop. 8 proponents did not have "standing" to challenge a federal judge's decision in the case. The ruling in Proposition 8 was less clear-cut than the one in DOMA, with Chief Justice Roberts siding with the 5-4 majority. Then the dissenters were Sonia Sotomayor, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.
The Supreme Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, but did conclude that the ballot proponents should not have been allowed to defend the case in court in the first place. The nation's highest court ordered the lower courts to reconsider the case, with instructions to dismiss it for lack of standing.
Proposition 8 is a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage approved by California voters in 2008 after the state Supreme Court briefly legalized such unions. Shortly after the vote, a new activist group, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, funded a legal challenge with famed lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies — the two attorneys who argued opposing sides of Bush v. Gore in 2000.
The federal lawsuit against Prop. 8 contended that the measure violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws. The plaintiffs were two California couples, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo. Two sets of California governors and attorneys general declined to defend Prop. 8, so the measure’s supporters took up the defense.
In December 2010, U.S. district judge Vaughn Walker found Prop. 8 unconstitutional “because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis.”
Then in 2012 an appeals court agreed that the measure is unconstitutional, but ruled in a more narrow fashion, so that its decision could not be applied to other states. And it’s at this step that the justices said the supporters of Prop. 8 did not have standing to make an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
“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,” the majority opinion stated, according to SCOTUSblog.
On DOMA, the court ruled that Edie Windsor will get her money back. The 83-year-old from New York was forced to pay more than $360,000 in estate taxes because the federal government did not recognize her marriage to her wife spouse, Thea Spyer. And the ruling could have far-reaching consequences for couples in a myriad of circumstances caused by DOMA's ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
In 1996, when a court case in Hawaii appeared to be paving the way for legal same-sex marriage in that state, Congress had passed DOMA and President Clinton signed it into law, in what some critics considered a cynical election-year move to appeal to conservative voters. The law not only prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages but allows any state to deny recognition of such marriages performed in other states. The Windsor case dealt with only the former section.
Marriage equality never came to Hawaii; the first state to establish it was Massachusetts, in 2004. The first court challenge to DOMA, Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, originated there in 2009. In that and other cases, several federal trial and appeals courts ruled that section 3 violated the U.S. Constitution.
But the case the Supreme Court decided to hear was Edie Windsor's. Windsor, who had been with Spyer for decades, married her in Canada after same-sex unions became legal there. After Spyer's death, Windsor ended up liable for estate taxes that she would not have owed had the federal government considered the two women legally married. Windsor's suit was filed in 2010, and trial and appeals courts found in her favor in 2012.
The Obama administration had declined to defend the law, and the Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, consisting of congressional leaders, took up the defense and hired lawyer Paul Clement. As the Supreme Court prepared to hear the case, more than 40 friend of the court briefs were filed in support of Windsor, and Bill Clinton announced that he was now opposed to DOMA and believed it should be struck down.
When the case was argued before the Supreme Court March 27, Justice Kennedy pointed out several times that regulation of marriages was generally left to the states, not the federal government. All four of the liberal members of the court questioned the law's constitutionality, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saying it created “two kinds of marriage: the full marriage, and then this sort of skim-milk marriage.”
Justice Elena Kagan cited a report from the time of the law's enactment that member of Congress saw it as a way to “express moral disapproval of homosexuality.” Clement responded that “just because a couple legislators may have had an improper motive” was not by itself a reason to invalidate the law. However, Roberta Kaplan, Windsor's lawyer, told the court DOMA resulted in “discrimination for the first time in our country’s history against a class of married couples.”
(RELATED: A Complete Timeline of the Defense of Marriage Act)
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