On June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
The Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) was a federal law that defined marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman”. This meant that when a same-sex couple married in one of the thirteen states that allows same-sex marriage, their marriage was not recognized by the federal government. Therefore, they were not eligible for numerous federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples, such as spousal health care benefits.
The case began in 2009 when Edith Windsor’s partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, passed away and left her entire estate to Ms. Windsor. Ms. Windsor and Ms. Spyer had been legally married in Canada and resided in New York.
When one member of a heterosexual married couple passes away, he is allowed to leave everything to his wife without having to pay any estate tax. However, because the federal government did not recognize Ms. Windsor and Ms. Spyer’s marriage, Ms. Windsor had to pay a $363,053 estate tax bill to Uncle Sam. Ms. Windsor appealed the payment by arguing it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. The Court agreed.
Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority in a 5-4 decision that New York’s decision to give same-sex couples the right to marry “conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import.” However, the federal government used that same status to “impose restrictions and disabilities.” Some of these restrictions are: preventing them from accessing government healthcare benefits, depriving them of bankruptcy protections for domestic support, making them follow a complicated procedure to file joint tax returns, prohibiting them from being buried together in veterans’ cemeteries, and denying or reducing benefits to families upon the loss of a spouse and parent.
Justice Kennedy declared, “By seeking to injure the very class New York seeks to protect, DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” The opinion was issued on the last day of the Court’s term. The three female justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan agreed, as did Justice Stephen Breyer. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.
As a result of this landmark ruling, federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples will be available to same-sex married couples. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. They are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
When will Hawaii?
Image Credit: Obenauf Law Group