October 18, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
BREAKING: Second Circuit latest to strike down DOMA
Edith Windsor, gay news, Washington Blade

The Second Circuit ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional against Edith Windsor‘s legal challenge against the law (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A federal appeals court has ruled the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional in case filed by a New York widow who’s challenging the statute on the basis that it unfairly forced her to pay $363,000 in estate taxes.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Section 3 of DOMA on the basis that it violates equal protection under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The majority opinion came from Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs, who wrote the decision, and Judge Christopher Droney. Judge Chester Straub dissented by asserting DOMA is constitutional.

“DOMA’s classification of same-sex spouses was not substantially related to an important government interest,” the decision states. “Accordingly, we hold that Section 3 of DOMA violates equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional.”

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, is 83-year-old lesbian Edith Windsor, who in 2009 had to pay $363,000 in estate taxes upon the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer, because DOMA prohibits the federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

In a statement, Windsor praised the Second Circuit for coming to the conclusion that DOMA is unconstitutional.

“This law violated the fundamental American principle of fairness that we all cherish,” Windsor said. “I know Thea would have been so proud to see how far we have come in our fight to be treated with dignity.”

The decision means seven federal courts — eight if a bankruptcy court ruling is included — have now determined DOMA is unconstitutional at a time when numerous cases challenging the anti-gay law are pending for consideration before the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court hasn’t yet determined whether it will take up the constitutionality of DOMA, but is likely to do so. The Second Circuit is also the second appeals court to strike down DOMA. The First Circuit ruled against the law in May.

The next step in the process is for House Republicans to appeal the decision either to the full Second Circuit or the Supreme Court, which has already been asked to take up the Windsor case along with several other DOMA cases. The high court will then decide the constitutionality of DOMA once and for all on a nationwide basis.

Susan Stenger, an appeals court attorney who’s handled LGBT rights cases for the Boston-based firm Burns & Levinson, said it’s unlikely DOMA proponents would pursue en banc review in the cases because so many other lawsuits against the anti-gay law are already pending before the Supreme Court.

“The fact that there’s a dissent [means] they might try en banc review, but also knowing that this will ultimately go to the Supreme Court, I would think they wouldn’t bother,” Stenger said. “Why waste time and resources when if an en banc changed anything, whomever lost would certainly appeal?”

Dennis, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, wrote the majority decision against DOMA even though he has reputation for being a conservative judge. Joining him was an Obama appointee, Droney. The dissenting judge, Straub, was appointed by former President Clinton.

In addition to ruling against DOMA, the judges determined the anti-gay law should be subject to heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption that the law is unconstitutional. The Second Circuit is the first appeals court to determine that DOMA should be subject to this level of review.

Based on precedent the Supreme Court set in earlier court cases, the court offers four reasons — including the history of discrimination faced by LGBT people —  as reasons why DOMA should be subject to heightened scrutiny.

“In this case, all four factors justify heightened scrutiny: A) homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; B) homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; C) homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and D) the class remains a politically weakened minority,” the decision states.

Douglas Nejaime, who’s gay and a law professor at Loyola Law School, called the Second Circuit’s decision to apply heightened scrutiny against DOMA “very significant” because it means the Supreme Court will have to weigh in on the matter in addition to the law itself.

“As a practical matter, this makes it even more difficult for the Supreme Court to avoid the question of heightened scrutiny,” NeJaime said. “If the Gill decision from the First Circuit was the only federal appellate decision striking down DOMA, the Court could have struck down DOMA — upholding that decision — without passing on the level-of-scrutiny question. But with the Second Circuit’s decision in Windsor, the Court is more likely to address heightened scrutiny.”

NeJaime added that as a result of the Second Circuit application of heightened scrutiny, courts are now more likely to find state marriage bans unconstitutional as well as anti-gay laws related parental rights and public employment discrimination.

Notably, the decision rejects an argument proposed by private attorney Paul Clement — who’s advocating on behalf of the anti-gay law for the House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group — that Windsor’s case should be sent to the New York Court of Appeals for certification because Spyer died at a time before New York legalized same-sex marriage.

The appeals court says certification is unnecessary because the New York Court of Appeals has expressed a disinclination to decide the question and because New York’s intermediate appellate courts are unanimous on the issue. At that time of Spyer’s death in 2009, Windsor’s marriage was recognized in New York by an executive order issued by then-Gov. David Paterson.

“Given the consistent view of these decisions, we see no need to seek guidance here,” the decision states. “Because Windsor’s marriage would have been recognized under New York law at the time of Spyer’s death, she has standing.”

The court also rejects an argument posed by Clement that the court should uphold DOMA because of precedent set by Baker v. Nelson, a 1972 case challenging Minnesota’s prohibition on same-sex marriage that the Supreme Court refused to hear for want of federal question.

Judges say Baker isn’t controlling because in the 40 years following the case there have been ”manifold changes to the Supreme Court’s equal protection jurisprudence” and because the lawsuits are distinct: Baker was about same-sex marriage within a state while the Windsor is about a federal law.

“After all, Windsor and Spyer were actually married in this case, at least in the eye of New York, where they lived,” the decision states. “Other courts have likewise concluded that Baker does not control equal protection review of DOMA for these reasons.”

James Esseks, director of the ACLU LGBT Project, shared in the jubilation that the court’s reasoning led the judges to rule against the anti-gay law.

“Yet again, a federal court has found that it is completely unfair to treat married same-sex couples as though they’re legal strangers,” Esseks said. “Edie and Thea were there for each other in sickness and in health like any other married couple, and it’s unfair for the government to disregard both their marriage and the life they built together and treat them like second-class citizens.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who was among the 144 House Democrats who signed a friend-of-the-court brief against DOMA in the Windsor case, also commended the judges for ruling in favor of a plaintiff who’s also his constituent.

“As the amicus brief I spearheaded in this case pointed out, and as the court agreed, there is no justification for denying Edie Windsor the same right as all other spouses to her full inheritance without paying a tax penalty,” Nadler said. “Edie lives in my congressional district, and was with her wife, Thea Spyer, for 44 years. The last thing she should have to worry about following the loss of her spouse is an unjust tax penalty imposed for no other reason than the fact that she and her wife were the same gender.”

In his dissenting opinion, Straub dissents in part and concurs in part, saying he disagrees with the majority opinion that DOMA is unconstitutional and the legislative approach is the appropriate course of action for those who want it lifted from the books.

“The Congress and the President formalized in DOMA, for federal purposes, the basic human condition of joining a man and a woman in a long-term relationship and the only one which is inherently capable of producing another generation of humanity,” Straub writes. “Whether that understanding is to continue is for the American people to decide via their choices in electing the Congress and the President. It is not for the Judiciary to search for new standards by which to negate a rational expression of the nation via the Congress.”

Stenger said she thinks the dissent will have value “to the people who disagree” with the majority opinion to justify their position, but otherwise have little impact.

“The Supreme Court obviously studies all the detail of a dissent in making its own decision, so it may find something in there persuasive, but technically it has no impact,” Stenger said. “It may just give food-for-thought to somebody who’s inclined to go in that direction.”

NOTE: This post has been edited and updated to include more information and reaction to the Second Circuit ruling.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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