KayBToday 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.


Continue Reading Supreme Court Rules DOMA Section 3 Unconstitutional

HilaryLThe United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), this morning, regarding the validity of Proposition 8.  The outcome is that same-sex marriage is once again legal in California.  The Supreme Court did not rule on a specific right to same-sex marriage, but rather it stated that neither it nor the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (which includes California) had the power to hear the case.  Hollingsworth is largely a procedural case, and it requires some background to fully understand.

In 2008, the California Supreme Court held that the California Constitution’s equal protection clause prohibited limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.  Shortly thereafter, California voters passed Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples.  The Respondents in Hollingsworth, two same-sex couples, filed suit against various California state and local officials in federal District Court asserting that Proposition 8 was invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  California state officials declined to defend Proposition 8, and the District Court allowed the Proponents (the parties who put Proposition 8 on the ballot) to defend it.  The District Court then declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and state officials declined to appeal.  The Proponents then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Ninth Circuit ultimately held that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, and the Proponents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Even though the Ninth Circuit found Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional, it put a “stay” in place, meaning that same-sex marriages were put on hold while the appeal to the Supreme Court was pending.


Continue Reading Marriage Equality Returns to California