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Gay marriage: Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, dismisses Prop. 8 appeal

US Supreme Court said Wednesday, 5 to 4, that DOMA (federal Defense of Marriage Act) had been enacted with an apparent attempt to harm gay couples. Its actions set stage for legal battles state by state over gay marriage.  

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Momentum appears to be on the side of the gay rights movement. In May alone, three states embraced same-sex marriage – Rhode Island on May 2, Delaware on May 7, and Minnesota on May 14.

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Polls show the American public is changing its mind about same-sex marriage, with some national surveys reporting between 52 and 58 percent support for marriage for gay men and lesbians.

Joining Kennedy in the majority opinion on DOMA were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Joining Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia in dissent were Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Roots of the DOMA case

The DOMA decision stems from a lawsuit filed by Edith “Edie” Windsor, a New York resident who was hit with a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her wife died in 2009. Ms. Windsor had spent 44 years living with Thea Spyer. In 2007, the lesbian couple got married in Canada.

There is a spousal exemption from the estate tax. But because DOMA defines marriage for purposes of federal law as a union between one man and one woman, Windsor was barred from claiming the exemption. Under federal tax law, she and her life-long companion might as well have been strangers.

Windsor paid the tax bill. Then she filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming DOMA violated her constitutional right to equal treatment.

A federal judge and a federal appeals court agreed, declaring DOMA unconstitutional. On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court affirmed that result.

Those defending DOMA said it was designed to enforce uniformity in the provision of federal benefits during a period that might see sharply divergent views of marriage emerge from state to state.

History of Proposition 8 case

The Proposition 8 case stemmed from a long-running battle in California over a ballot initiative that sought to amend the state constitution to restrict marriage to a union between one man and one woman.

After California voters approved Proposition 8 by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, two same-sex couples sued in federal court. They argued that Proposition 8 violated their right under the US Constitution to marry regardless of sexual orientation.

A federal judge conducted a trial and ruled that the US Constitution guarantees a right of same-sex couples to marry.

On appeal, a panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco decided 2 to 1 that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. But the appeals court side-stepped the federal judge’s finding of a fundamental right to same-sex marriage.

Instead, the appeals court said the ballot initiative violated the equal protection rights of gay and lesbian couples by taking away the right to marry after it had already been granted by the state Supreme Court. The appeals court majority said the ballot initiative was motivated by animus toward homosexuals and was thus invalid.

After the federal trial and before the appeal, state officials refused to continue to participate in the legal defense of Proposition 8. Lawyers for supporters of the ballot initiative took up the case.

The lower courts – including the California Supreme Court – had ruled that the supporters had the necessary legal standing to wage that fight. On Wednesday, the high court rejected that judgment.

Writing for the court, Roberts said that once Proposition 8 was approved by the voters and became a constitutional amendment, the initiative supporters no longer had authority to legally defend the measure. That was the responsibility of state officials, even though they declined to defend Proposition 8.

“States cannot alter that role simply by issuing to private parties who otherwise lack standing a ticket to the federal courthouse,” Roberts said.

“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,” he said. “We decline to do so for the first time here."

Joining Roberts in that decision were Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan.

Justice Kennedy filed a dissent, joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor. 

The cases were US v. Windsor (12-307) and Hollingsworth v. Perry (12-144).

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