Today the United States Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. The case, United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. ____ (2013), involved the portion of DOMA that stated that the federal government will only recognize marriages between opposite-sex spouses for purposes of federal law. There are over 1,000 federal laws that address marital status, and DOMA’s Section 3 denied validly married same-sex couples myriad protections and responsibilities under federal law. Because of the Windsor decision, same-sex spouses who are validly married under state law will now also be treated as married under federal law.
Edith Windsor married Thea Spyer, her partner of 46 years, in Ontario, Canada, in 2007. At the time, their state of residency, New York, did not allow same-sex marriage, but it did recognize the validity of their Canadian marriage. When Ms. Spyer died in 2009, she left her entire estate to Ms. Windsor. Ms. Windsor filed Ms. Spyer’s federal estate tax return and claimed that she was owed a refund of $363,053 as the surviving spouse. Under federal tax law, property passing from a deceased spouse to a surviving spouse is not subject to estate tax. However, DOMA prevented the IRS from recognizing Ms. Windsor and Ms. Spyer’s marriage, and the refund claim was denied. The federal District Court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Ms. Windsor, holding that the applicable provisions of DOMA were unconstitutional and ordering that the Treasury refund the estate tax paid to Ms. Windsor with interest. The government appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated Section 3 of DOMA violates the due process and equal protection principles of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it was principally designed to impose an unequal status on otherwise validly married same-sex couples. Specifically, Section 3 tells these couples that “their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition . . . plac[ing] same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage.” Slip op. at 23. To the extent that a state has chosen to allow same-sex marriage, the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing “a disability on the class [of same-sex spouses] by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.” Slip op. at 25.