Supreme Court Hands Same-Sex Couples a Victory

Prop 8 Rally Outside Supreme Court 6/26 2 - H 2013
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Prop 8 Rally Outside Supreme Court 6/26 2 - H 2013

The high court rules the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and declines to address California's Prop 8 for lack of standing.

In a nation built on the founding principle that all men are created equal and endowed with an unalienable right to pursue happiness, and nearly 150 years after the United States decided that no person should be denied equal protection under the law, the United States Supreme Court on Wednesday declared it unconstitutional to restrict federal marriage benefits for same-sex couples.

Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the majority opinion in a 5-4 ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. According to the Supreme Court's holding, "DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty."

At the same time, the high court in a second ruling declined to issue a big opinion on the constitutionality of gay marriage bans in states across the nation. A majority of justices held that the petitioner lacked standing and as a result has invalidated an appeals court ruling that rejected California's Proposition 8. The ruling lets stand the District Court's decision that stopped authorities from enforcing the state's gay marriage ban.

Two marriage cases were before the Supreme Court. Both were argued last March and gave the nation's most powerful judges the opportunity to confirm or deny the idea that bans on gay marriage are at odds with constitutional guarantees of equality for all of the nation's citizens. To allow men and women to marry within their own gender has proven divisive over the years, but polls have shown that an ever growing share of the American public has embraced the idea. Amid such newfound support for gay marriage, the Supreme Court has decided that the time is right to stop discrimination in federal law while reserving judgment on whether states can set up their own bans.

The high court was asked to review in United States v. Windsor the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and was intended to restrict federal marriage benefits like Social Security and deny same-sex couples certain tax advantages, including the ability to file jointly and the right of spouses to transfer property between one another tax-free.

DOMA was challenged by Edith Windsor, a resident of New York who married Thea Spyer in Canada and was forced to pay estate taxes upon an inheritance from Spyer's death. At the lower appeals court, Windsor successfully challenged DOMA as unconstitutional under the Constitution's equal protection guarantees.

Justice Kennedy now delivers the opinion that DOMA deprives citizens of equal liberty. He was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

According to the ruling, "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. 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."

Here's the full ruling.

Justices John Roberts and Antonin Scalia delivered dissents and were joined by justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

An overturning of DOMA will have an impact. There's thought to be more than a thousand federal statutes where marriage status plays a factor.

The Supreme Court also heard Hollingsworth v. Perry, which directly challenged the rational basis for a state denying marriage recognition and benefits to same-sex partners. The case considered Proposition 8, a California ballot measure approved by voters in 2008 that changed the state's constitution to say that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

In 2010, a federal judge overturned Prop 8 as violating due process and equal protection, and that decision was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before making its way to the high court.

The case presented the biggest opportunity for the justices to hold that gay marriage bans represented discrimination against a class of citizens, and leading up to today's Supreme Court ruling, legal observers wondered whether the justices would grab the chance to plant gay marriage under constitutional protection. Because California state authorities refused to make the appeal themselves, doubts existed as to whether the appellants had experienced harm and thus had standing to pursue the revival of Prop 8. This gave the justices the opening toward making a ruling on narrow grounds.

According to the Supreme Court's majority holding authored by Justice Roberts, "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."

Here's the full ruling. Justice Roberts was joined by Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan. In dissent were Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor.

This ensures that the debates over gay marriage will continue to rage throughout the nation. It also leaves the fate of the same-sex marriage ban in the state of California in doubt, as the case has now been remanded down with instructions to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The holding decision is now the District Court one, and the the scope of the district judge's order that prohibited California's governor and attorney general from enforcing Prop 8 will have to be sorted. Certainly, there's hope that gay marriage will be coming back to California for the first time in five years.

In a statement in reaction to the ruling, President Barack Obama said, "I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it. We are a people who declared that we are all created equal -- and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

Twitter: @eriqgardner