The Supreme Court today struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law signed by President Clinton that defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of federal law.
The decision was 5-4, with the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy — who also wrote the court's historic gay rights decisions in Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas. Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts all filed dissents. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia's dissent, and joined Alito's in part, while Roberts joined Scalia's in part. Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Kennedy's majority opinion.
Here's what you need to know.
What was the actual case about?
United States v. Windsor concerns Edith Windsor, who was widowed when her wife Thea Spyer died in 2009. Windsor and Spyer were married in 2007 in Canada after being partners for 40 years. Windsor was forced to pay $363,053 in estate tax on Spyer’s estate, which she argues she would not have to pay if she had been Spyer’s husband. Thus, she claims, the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents her from being considered Spyer’s spouse for the purposes of federal taxes, literally cost her $363,053.
How did it get here?
The Obama administration has declined to defend DOMA, and so the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), a standing organization in Congress, took over the law’s defense at the instruction of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in June that DOMA’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman lacked a rational basis, and ordered damages of $363,053 paid to Windsor. In October, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals concurred, with a panel ruling 2-1 for Windsor. Then the Supreme Court considered it. Here are the arguments in the case:
And here are the portions of the argument that you need to read most.
What issues did the Court have to decide on?
Three. The first was the equal protection issue. The second was whether the fact that the executive branch agrees with Windsor means that there isn’t a real controversy in this case, meaning the court doesn’t have jurisdiction. The third was whether BLAG would be harmed by DOMA being overturned, and thus whether it has standing to defend the law (a friend-of-the-court brief by Harvard professor Vicki Jackson argues that even Congress doesn’t have standing, and even if it did, BLAG wouldn’t).
Justice Kennedy's ruling held that the court had jurisdiction in the case, effectively ruling that there was a real controversy and that BLAG had standing to defend the law. His ruling was solely based on his judgment that DOMA violates the equal protection clause.
What does this mean for gay couples?
It depends on what area you're talking about. "What section 3 of DOMA does is that it performs a find and replace of every instance of 'spouse' or 'husband' or 'wife' appears and changes it so that it's "opposite sex husband" or 'opposite sex wife'," says Rita Lin, a partner at Morrison and Foerster in San Francisco who argued Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management, another DOMA case. "The effect is going to vary based on which of the thousand-plus statutes or regulations are affected."
There are some clear-cut cases. It seems pretty clear that legally married same-sex couples where one member is employed by the federal government are entitled to spousal benefits, just the same as any other married couple. For other legally married couples who don't live in states where same-sex marriage is recognized, there's some question as to whether the "state of celebration" or "state of residence" matters. Usually, the former is the standard used, meaning a marriage is valid if it's valid in the state it was celebrated. That would mean most legally married same-sex couples, regardless of where they live, are entitled to spousal benefits.
Other areas, like tax law, may require additional rule-making before same-sex couples are treated equally. "Some operate just based on policy, without getting into a regulation or statute, so those can be modified very quickly," Tara Borelli, an attorney at Lambda Legal who was also a counsel in Golinski. "Others require rule-making." And others require statutory changes. Borelli notes that Social Security will probably have to be changed by Congress for same-sex couples to be treated equally.
This does open the door for bi-national same-sex couples to be treated equally under the law. That means that comprehensive immigration reform probably need not include a provision specifically tailored to making sure bi-national partners of same-sex couples can get visas automatically, the same as opposite-sex partners. As Paul Smith, a partner at Jenner & Block and arguably the leading gay rights litigator in the country (he won Lawrence v. Texas, overturning state bans on gay sex), told me, “My understanding is that the elimination of DOMA would by itself mean that all bi-national married couples would have the same rights, whether same sex or not.”
Update: Much of this post draws from this earlier post, with new material added.