Justices Strike Down Defense of Marriage Act

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court championed gay rights in its most awaited decision of the term, unraveling the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional Wednesday.
     Section 3 of the 1996 federal law defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, meaning that Edith Schlain Windsor did not qualify for the estate-tax exemption on spousal inheritance when her wife, Thea Spyer, died in 2009.
     Windsor and Spyer had married each other in Canada before it was possible for to do so in their home state of New York, where the couple had lived together since 1963.
     After paying the $363,000 tax on Spyer’s estate, Windsor challenged DOMA on equal-protection grounds, persuading a federal judge in Manhattan to strike Section 3 down as unconstitutional and order the government to give Windsor a refund.
     The 2nd Circuit agreed last year that Section 3 was unconstitutional, reviewing the appeal even though the Justice Department abandoned its defense of DOMA in 2011, leaving the task to private counsel retained by the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) of the U.S. House of Representatives.
     Despite concerns over standing, a five-justice majority of the Supreme Court found Wednesday that “prudential rules” support taking jurisdiction “in these unusual and urgent circumstances.”
     Dismissing the case would lead to extensive litigation, as well as a lack of guidance for “the district courts in 94 districts throughout the nation” as to tax-refund suits and “the whole of DOMA’s sweep involving over 1,000 federal statutes and a myriad of federal regulations,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
     Turning to the merits, Kennedy pointed out that DOMA has a far greater reach than other examples of “limited federal laws that regulate the meaning of marriage in order to further federal policy.”
     At its heart, DOMA takes aim at “a class of persons that the laws of New York, and of 11 other states, have sought to protect,” according to the ruling.
     Though marriage laws vary from state to state – such as in New Hampshire where the minimum age to marry is 13 – Kennedy said “these rules are in every event consistent within each state.”
     “Against this background DOMA rejects the long-­established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obli­gations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each state, though they may vary, subject to con­stitutional guarantees, from one state to the next,” he added. “De­spite these considerations, it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance. The state’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case quite apart from principles of federalism. Here the state’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. When the state used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in this way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community. DOMA, because of its reach and extent, departs from this history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage.”
     The “resulting injury and indignity” of imposing restrictions through DOMA is ultimately “a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment,” Kennedy wrote.
     “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect,” he added. “By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal gov­ernment.”
     Though New York made same-sex marriage legal in June 2011 to eliminate inequality, “DOMA frus­trates that objective through a system-wide enactment with no identified connection to any particular area of federal law,” according to the ruling.
     “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code,” Kennedy added. “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.”
     The government’s justifications for DOMA rang hollow for the court with Kennedy who found that tha law’s “prin­cipal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency.”
     Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.

     Hardly Unanimous
     The decision spurred three dissents from Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia and Alito’s dissents, both in part.
     Defending the government’s passage of DOMA, Roberts said that “interests in uniformity and stability amply justified Congress’s decision to retain the definition of marriage that, at that point, had been adopted by every state in our nation, and every nation in the world.”
     He said the court does not have jurisdiction to question DOMA’s constitutionality.
     Scalia also came to this conclusion, and Roberts joined this dissent in part.
     “We have no power to decide this case,” Scalia wrote. “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 diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution in America.”
     Scalia said the court sidelined the obstacles of standing because it “is eager – hungry – to tell everyone its view of the legal question at the heart of this case.” (Emphasis in original.)
     On the standing issue, Kennedy had noted that President Barack Obama’s disagreement with Section 3 does not change the fact that issuing Windsor a tax refund would injure the government.
     “Windsor’s ongoing claim for funds that the United States refuses to pay thus estab­lishes a controversy sufficient for Article III jurisdiction,” Kennedy wrote. “It would be a different case if the executive had taken the further step of paying Windsor the refund to which she was entitled under the District Court’s ruling.”
     Scalia said it was more clear cut.
     “The plaintiff and the gov­ernment agree entirely on what should happen in this lawsuit,” he wrote. “They agree that the court below got it right; and they agreed in the court below that the court below that one got it right as well. What, then, are we doing here?”
     Alito’s dissent emphasizes that “the Constitution does not guarantee the right to enter into a same-sex marriage.”
     “What Windsor and the United States seek, therefore, is not the protection of a deeply rooted right but the recogni­tion of a very new right, and they seek this innovation not from a legislative body elected by the people, but from unelected judges,” he added. “Faced with such a request, judges have cause for both caution and humility.”
     Some worry that same-sex marriage “will seriously undermine the institution of marriage,” but judges are in no position to resolve this prediction, according to his dissent.
     “In our system of government, ultimate sovereignty rests with the people, and the people have the right to control their own destiny,” Scalia wrote. “Any change on a question so fundamental should be made by the people through their elected officials.”
     Prop. 8 Contrast
     Standing had been the determining factor, however, for the court’s other much-awaited decision Wednesday – concerning the ban on gay marriage in California.
     Proposition 8, passed by voters passed in 2008, amended the California Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
     The initiative reversed a California Supreme Court decision that gave same-sex couples the right to marry.
     Kristin Perry, Sandra Stier, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarillo – gay couples affected by the new ban – persuaded a federal judge to strike the new law down, but gay marriage has remained illegal in California pending resolution by the Supreme Court.
     With both the California and U.S. governments declining to defend Prop. 8 on appeal, the task fell to the bill’s sponsors from ProtectMarriage.com.
     That group’s standing had long drawn objections, and the Supreme Court hammered the final nail in that coffin Wednesday.
     “After the District Court declared Proposition 8 unconsti­tutional and enjoined the state officials named as defend­ants from enforcing it, … the inquiry under Article III changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a five-person majority. “Respondents no longer had any injury to redress – they had won – and the state officials chose not to appeal.
     “The only individuals who sought to appeal that order were petitioners, who had intervened in the District Court. But the District Court had not ordered them to do or refrain from doing anything. To have standing, a liti­gant must seek relief for an injury that affects him in a ‘personal and individual way.’ He must possess a ‘direct stake in the outcome’ of the case. Here, however, petitioners had no ‘direct stake’ in the outcome of their appeal. Their only interest in having the District Court order reversed was to vindicate the constitutional validity of a generally applicable California law.”
     Roberts added: “No matter how deeply committed petitioners may be to upholding Proposition 8 or how ‘zealous [their] advocacy,’ that is not a ‘particularized’ interest sufficient to create a case or controversy under Article III.”

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