the supremes

Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA, Passes on Prop 8

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

On the final day of the Supreme Court term, the justices ruled 5–4 that the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 is unconstitutional, while dismissing the Proposition 8 case on standing. “DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment,” wrote Justice Kennedy for the majority in the New York case, United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307. “DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty.” The federal government will now recognize same-sex marriage in the states that already allow it, entitling couples to more than 1,000 federal programs and laws.

In finding that Prop 8’s supporters did not have the legal standing to appeal, California will once again allow gay marriage based on the lower court’s decision to strike down the law. Neither decision establishes a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal,” wrote Kennedy in the Windsor case, striking down the law’s key section 3 component. “The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person.” Section 2, which allows states to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states, remains.

Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA case, will be allowed to collect a $363,000 tax refund because she was not granted the federal estate tax deduction available to straight couples when her wife died.

In a 5–4 decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Prop 8 case, Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, “We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here.” He was joined by Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, while Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor dissented.

Supreme Court Issues DOMA, Prop 8 Decisions