Attorneys for New York lesbian widow Edith Windsor are arguing that the Supreme Court should strike down the Defense of Marriage Act on the basis that it violates her right to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
In a 63-page brief filed on Tuesday, Windsor’s lawyers make their case against DOMA — saying it furthers no federal interest in procreation or dual sovereignty with the states — and argue the law should be subjected to heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption it’s unconstitutional.
“DOMA’s discriminatory treatment of married gay couples violates Ms. Windsor’s right to the equal protections of the laws as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment,” the brief states.
Signers of the brief include private attorney Robbie Kaplan and attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, who filed the lawsuit on behalf on Windsor.
The case pending before the Supreme Court is known as Windsor v. United States and challenges Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Windsor is suing the U.S. government because in 2009 under the law she had to pay $363,000 in estate taxes upon the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer. Married straight couples are exempt from the estate tax under current law.
A substantial portion of the brief is devoted to countering the arguments of the House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which filed a brief in favor of DOMA in late January. Under the direction of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), BLAG has taken up defense of DOMA following the Obama administration’s announcement in February 2011 that it would no longer defend the law.
Windsor’s attorneys, for example, say BLAG’s argument that DOMA serves a federal interest by preserving marriage as one man, one woman to encourage responsible procreation “speaks volumes” about the lack of validity of the law.
“This one difference cannot explain the federal government’s decision to impose a sweeping disability on married gay couples that excludes them from countless federal programs and protections, and that only harms their children,” the brief states. “Because this distinction is based on the one feature that distinguishes married gay couples from married straight couples, what BLAG is really arguing is that it is acceptable to discriminate against married gay couples simply because they are gay.”
The brief from Windsor’s attorneys comes on the heels of a similar brief filed against DOMA before the Supreme Court by the Justice Department, which has assisted in litigation against the law. Both briefs argue that the court should apply heightened scrutiny to its review of DOMA.
Windsor’s attorneys makes the argument that DOMA should be subjected to heightened scrutiny because, like other suspect classes, gay people have suffered a long history of discrimination, sexual orientation is a central part of a person’s identity, and gay people lack power in the political process.
The brief also states that gay people should be considered a suspect class because sexual orientation has no bearing on their ability to contribute to society.
“Despite pervasive discrimination, lesbians and gay men have served with great distinction in virtually every facet of American society, as artists, athletes, academics, soldiers, scientists, lawyers, judges, psychologists like Dr. Spyer, and computer programmers like Ms. Windsor,” the brief states.
The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals applied heightened scrutiny to DOMA in its ruling against the law. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will do the same, but if it did, that could have widespread implications on laws affecting gay people.
However, there’s a key difference between the arguments in the briefs with regard to how DOMA hold against an application of a lower standard of rational basis review. Windsor’s attorneys say the court should strike down DOMA even it applied this lower standard and didn’t apply heightened scrutiny. The Justice Department does not challenge the law on the basis of rational basis review, but admits DOMA would fail under a more searching form of that review.
The next step in the case is for other interested parties to file their friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Windsor. Those briefs are due Friday.
The House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group has 30 days to respond to the brief filed by Windsor’s attorneys. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for March 27 and justices are expected to render a decision before their term ends in June.