Introduced in May 1996, the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed both houses of Congress by large, veto-proof majorities and was signed into law by President William Jefferson Clinton in September 1996. By defining “spouse” and its related terms to signify a straight couple in a recognized marriage, it codified non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, social security survivors’ benefits, immigration, bankruptcy, and the filing of joint tax returns, as well as excluding same-sex spouses from the scope of laws protecting families, laws evaluating financial aid eligibility, and federal ethics laws applicable to opposite-sex spouses.
SCOTUS issued rulings on two highly-anticipated cases on Marriage Equality on this day five years ago. By 5-4, it ruled that DOMA, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, was unconstitutional. Plus, the court decided that supporters of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that had outlawed same-sex marriages in the California, did not have standing to bring the case to the court.
Here is the background: Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a same-sex couple residing in Manhattan, were lawfully married in Toronto in 2007. Later, in 2008, New York state recognized their marriage following a state court decision. Spyer died in 2009 at 77-years-old, leaving her entire estate to Windsor. Windsor sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. She was barred from doing so by Section 3 of DOMA. The Internal Revenue Service found that the exemption did not apply to same-sex marriages, denied Windsor’s claim, and compelled her to pay $363,053 in estate taxes.
In November 2010, Windsor sued the federal government in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking a refund because DOMA singled out legally married same-sex couples for “differential treatment compared to other similarly situated couples without justification.”
In February 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would not defend the constitutionality of DOMA in Unites State v. Windsor. In June 2012, a federal judge ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional under the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment and ordered the federal government to issue the tax refund, including interest. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in a 2–1 decision, affirmed the district court’s judgment in October 2012.
On June 26, 2013, SCOTUS issued a 5–4 decision declaring DOMA to be unconstitutional “as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment”.
On the same day, the court also issued a separate 5–4 decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry, a case related to California’s constitutional amendment initiative barring same-sex marriage. The decision effectively allowed same-sex marriages in that state to resume after the court ruled that the proponents of Proposition 8 lacked standing to appeal and the lower court ruling invalidating California’s Prop. 8 stood.
Section 3 of DOMA defined marriage as: “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and a spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” That provision had been struck down by eight lower courts before SCOTUS’s 5-4 ruling in United States v. Windsor settled the matter for good.
This decision meant that legally married same-sex couples were now entitled to the same federal benefits as married opposite sex couples.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, the same group that gave the dissent in SCOTUS’s ruling today of the president’s Muslim Ban.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin “Boom Boom” Scalia, Clarence “Coke Can” Thomas and Samuel “Big Sammy” Alito dissented.
Holder said SCOTUS’s decision on DOMA was:
“…an enormous triumph for equal protection under the law for all Americans. The Court’s ruling gives real meaning to the Constitution’s promise of equal protection to all members of our society, regardless of sexual orientation.”
President Barack Obama said that DOMA was “discrimination enshrined in law”. He called the ruling invalidating the legislation “a victory for couples who have long fought for equal treatment under the law.” Obama:
“We welcome today’s decision, and I’ve directed the Attorney General to work with other members of my Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for Federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.”
“On an issue as sensitive as this, knowing that Americans hold a wide range of views based on deeply held beliefs, maintaining our nation’s commitment to religious freedom is also vital. How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions. Nothing about this decision – which applies only to civil marriages — changes that.”
In his dissent in the DOMA case, Scalia basically argued the people should be allowed to rule themselves:
“This case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today’s opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseases root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution in America.”
Justice Kennedy wrote his opinion saying DOMA violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause:
“DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. 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 writes inequality into the entire United States Code. The particular case at hand concerns the estate tax, but DOMA is more than a simple determination of what should or should not be allowed as an estate tax refund. Among the over 1,000 statutes and numerous federal regulations that DOMA controls are laws pertaining to Social Security, housing, taxes, criminal sanctions, copyright, and veterans’ benefits. DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency.”
“DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages. This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class. The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.”
Windsor was the Grand Marshal of the 2013 NYC LGBTQ Pride March.
In September 2016, she married Judith Kasen; Windsor was 87-years-old, and Kasen was 55.
On September 12, 2017, Windsor left this wicked world. Hillary Clinton spoke at her funeral.
When Windsor died, this writer had this to say.