In a historic development, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two decisions on Wednesday that advanced marriage rights for gay couples and will almost certainly reshape the national debate on the issue.
In one 5-4 ruling, the court determined that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional because it violates due process and equal protection for same-sex couples under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That decision means the U.S. government must begin recognizing same-sex marriages for a broad range of benefits, including those related to federal taxes and immigration law.
Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion and was joined by Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Kennedy said. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
The dissenting justices were Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. In his opinion, Roberts says Congress acted constitutionally in passing DOMA and took issue with the authority the court granted itself in overturning the anti-gay statute.
Writing his dissent, Scalia said the decision of the court robs the American public of its ability to decide the issue of same-sex marriage through the democratic process.
“Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many,” Scalia writes. “But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better.”
In another 5-4 decision, the court determined anti-gay forces don’t have standing to defend California’s Proposition 8. That decision leaves in place a district court injunction that prohibits the state of California from enforcing its ban on same-sex marriage. Gay couples will be able to marry in the state once the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals lift its stay.
Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the court and was joined by Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan. Kennedy wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor.
“The Article III requirement that a party invoking the jurisdiction of a federal court seek relief for a personal, particularized injury serves vital interests going to the role of the Judiciary in our system of separated powers,” Roberts writes. “States cannot alter that role simply by issuing to private parties who otherwise lack standing a ticket to the federal courthouse.”
The court’s ruling in the case against Prop 8, known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, is specific only to California — meaning the justices didn’t grant the expansive ruling that supporters of marriage equality had sought to bring marriage equality to all 50 states.
Shortly after HRC President Chad Griffin walked out of the court with plaintiffs in the marriage cases, he received a call from President Obama who was aboard Air Force One. Obama congratulated Griffin for the victories as reporters and onlookers watched.
The decisions were handed down 10 years to the day that the Supreme Court announced its landmark decision in the 2003 case of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state sodomy laws throughout the country.
The challenge to DOMA, known as United States v. Windsor, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others in 2011 on behalf of lesbian New York widow Edith Windsor. Upon the death of her spouse Thea Spyer in 2009, Windsor had to pay the U.S. government $363,000 in estate taxes because of DOMA — a penalty that she wouldn’t have faced if she were married to a man.
The decision striking down DOMA affirms the initial rulings against the federal anti-gay law last year by U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones and the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Obama administration helped in securing the ruling against DOMA. After it stopped defending DOMA in 2011, the U.S. Justice Department began filing briefs against the law and sent attorneys to litigate against it during oral arguments. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued against DOMA before the Supreme Court, saying the law doesn’t hold up under the standard heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption it’s unconstitutional.
But the Supreme Court didn’t get to the issue of heightened scrutiny in the DOMA case because it found the law was unconstitutional under the less stringent standard of rational basis review.
The case against Prop 8 was filed by the California-based American Foundation for Equal Rights in 2009 on behalf of two plaintiff couples — a lesbian couple, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and a gay male couple, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo — who were unable to marry because of the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
The attorneys representing them were Theodore Olson, a former U.S. solicitor general during the Bush administration, and David Boies, a so-called “dream team” of attorneys who represented opposite sides in the 2000 case Bush v. Gore.
Because the state officials — California Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris — refused to defend Prop 8 in court, anti-gay groups that put Prop 8 on the ballot in 2008 such as ProtectMarriage.com took up the responsibility of defending the measure. The California Supreme Court certified the groups had standing under state law and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed they had standing.
But the high court determined that these groups — even though attorney Charles Cooper spoke on behalf on them in oral arguments — don’t have standing because they lack any legal injury in the wake of the lower court’s determination that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.
The Obama administration had also assisted in efforts to secure a ruling against California’s Proposition 8. The Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in February saying the ban was unconstitutional and Verrilli argued in court against Prop 8, suggesting all eight states with domestic partnerships should be required to grant marriage rights to gay couples.
The issue of standing also came up in the DOMA case for two reasons. One, the court had questioned whether the U.S. Justice Department could have appealed the district court ruling to the Second Circuit because the initial ruling against DOMA was what the Obama administration wanted. Two, the court questioned whether the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, a five-member Republican-majority panel within the U.S. House, had standing to take up defense of DOMA in the administration’s stead.
But the court determined an active controversy remains in the case because the U.S. government still hasn’t refunded Windsor the $363,000 she paid in estate taxes. Once the court determined it has jurisdiction based on the Obama administration’s appeal of the lawsuit, it didn’t get to the issue of whether BLAG has standing.
In his ruling, Kennedy writes the continuation of litigation in the absence of a federal ruling on DOMA would cause uncertainty.
“[T]he costs, uncertainties, and alleged harm and injuries likely would continue for a time measured in years before the issue is resolved,” Kennedy writes in the ruling. “In these unusual and urgent circumstances, the very term ‘prudential’ counsels that it is a proper exercise of the Court’s responsibility to take jurisdiction.”