The US Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday, and in a separate decision by a different majority dismissed an appeal supporting a ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriages in California.
The twin decisions did not address whether there is a fundamental right to same-sex marriage under the US Constitution. But the DOMA decision appears to have laid the legal groundwork for future cases challenging state laws banning same-sex marriages.
As such, the court’s actions represent clear and important victories for gay rights advocates in their fight for equal marital rights for gay men and lesbians. At the same time, the decisions represent a significant setback for those seeking to maintain the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
President Obama offered his personal congratulations via telephone from Air Force One to Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign.
“We’re proud of you guys, and we’re proud to have this in California,” he told Mr. Griffin. “And it's because of your leadership things are heading in the right way. So you should be very proud today.”
House Speaker John Boehner, who intervened to defend DOMA when the Obama administration refused to do so, said he was disappointed in the ruling.
“A robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square,” he said, “and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”
Rea Carey of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said the decisions would mean stronger families and communities across the nation. “Today’s historic decisions are a significant leap forward for freedom and justice for same-sex couples and their families,” she said.
Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage called the court’s decision to dismiss the Proposition 8 case a “miscarriage of justice.” “There is a stench coming from these cases that has now stained the Supreme Court,” he said.
Beyond resolving two high-profile legal disputes, the decisions set the stage for heightened battles state by state over each state’s decision to recognize same-sex marriages or not.
The dismissal of the appeal involving California’s Proposition 8 means, at a minimum, that the two same-sex couples who were plaintiffs in that case will be permitted to marry, but the broader import of the lower court’s order may depend on additional litigation.
The decision striking down DOMA means that same-sex married couples in states that have endorsed such marriages will be eligible to receive some 1,100 federal marriage benefits that had been limited under the law to opposite-sex spouses.
Antigay animus cited in striking down DOMA
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the 1996 Defense of Marriage statute violated basic due process and equal protection principles because the statute was the product of a “bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group.”
Justice Kennedy cited federalism principles to support the decision, noting that the states enjoy broad authority to determine matters involving the family, including marriage, divorce, and child custody.
But the decision turns on the court’s conclusion that DOMA was enacted with an apparent intent to harm same-sex couples and treat their relationships as second-class.
Kennedy said a state that recognizes same-sex marriages has made a choice to afford additional protection and dignity to that bond. Once that happens, Kennedy said, the federal government must grant equal treatment to those couples.
“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.”
In a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts took issue with Kennedy’s claim that the law was motivated by antigay animus. “I would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry,” he said.
DOMA was enacted in 1996 with overwhelming bipartisan support. The vote was 85 to 15 in the Senate and 342 to 67 in the House of Representatives. Then-President Bill Clinton signed it into law.
In a separate dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized the majority justices for taking sides in the roiling national debate over gay marriage.
“We might have covered ourselves with honor today, by promising all sides of this debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution,” he said. “We might have let the People decide.”
Instead, he said, the majority justices decided that Congress and the president who signed DOMA into law were motivated by bigotry.
“As far as this Court is concerned, no one should be fooled; it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe,” Scalia said. “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition,” he wrote.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage. Thirty states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Six other states passed statutes to achieve the same result.
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.
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 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).