The Supreme Court ruled by 5-4 vote on June 26 in the case United States v. Windsor that a section of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
DOMA was signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1996.
In its decision, the court upheld a ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The court found section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, claiming that it violated the Fifth Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, by denying federal benefits to same-sex couples who were legally married under the laws of their state.
In this case, the Internal Revenue Service denied Ms. Windsor a refund on federal estate taxes when her same-sex spouse died. While the state of New York recognized the couple’s marriage, the IRS denied the refund under section 3 of DOMA. Section 3 defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman, and a “spouse” as a person of the opposite sex — a husband or wife.
"The question is whether the resulting injury and indignity is a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment," the Court majority stated in its opinion.
The portion of the Fifth Amendment cited states that a person shall not "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."
The chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, dissented with the majority opinion. He said, "This Court lacks jurisdiction to review the decisions of the courts below. On the merits of the constitutional dispute the Court decides to decide … Congress acted constitutionally in passing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Interests in uniformity and stability amply justified Congress’s decision to retain the definition of marriage that, at that point, had been adopted by every state in our nation, and every nation in the world."
The opinions of the four dissenting justices were published in a 47-page statement, concluding that DOMA is constitutional and does not violate the Fifth Amendment.
Washington state joined 14 liberal-leaning states and the District of Columbia in a “friend-of-the-court” brief, agreeing with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling.
King County Executive Dow Constantine and Washington State Attorney Bob Ferguson, both Democrats, issued statements on Wednesday praising the Supreme Court for its ruling on same-sex marriage.
“I am pleased and proud that the Supreme Court has officially recognized the civil rights of same-sex couples, rights that Washington state voters embraced last year,” Constantine said. “Being able to issue the first marriage licenses to happy same-sex couples was one of the highlights of my career … I am proud of King County and Washington state for helping to nudge the nation toward justice.”
Ferguson stated, “This ruling is vitally important to the people of Washington. Now that Washington voters have approved same-sex marriage, couples in our state could have found themselves in similar situations — being denied federal benefits provided to other couples."
The Family Policy Institute of Washington, which does not support same-sex marriage, also released a statement regarding the ruling.
“The Supreme Court got it wrong when it said that the state can tell the federal government how it must define marriage. The federal government, on behalf of those who elected them, should be able to recognize the unique value of relationships that provide children a mother and father,” said Joseph Backholm, executive director, who helped lead the Referendum 74 campaign in 2012. “However, those who want to redefine marriage suffered an important defeat today. The Supreme Court refused to declare a constitutional right to same-sex 'marriage,' and rejected their request to impose a redefinition of marriage on all 50 states. This decision means that this important debate will continue state by state across the country.”
In another 5-4 ruling in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court ruled that the proponents of California’s Proposition 8 who appealed the case lacked standing — the ability to bring the case — and that the Ninth Circuit should have never ruled on the case. The decision leaves intact the lower court ruling that Prop. 8, which denied same sex couples the right to marry, was unconstitutional.
Justice Anthony Kennedy joined three others in dissenting.
"Here the Court refuses to allow a state’s authorized representatives to defend the outcome of a democratic election," Kennedy said. "The Court’s opinion disrespects and disparages both the dissenting political process in California and the well-stated opinion of the California Supreme Court in this case."
Kennedy concluded: "In the end, what the Court fails to grasp or accept is the basic premise of the initiative process. And it is this. The essence of democracy is that the right to make law rests in the people and flows to the government, not the other way around. Freedom resides first in the people without need of a grant from government. The California initiative process embodies these principles and has done so for over a century … In California and the 26 other states that permit initiatives and popular referendums, the people have exercised their own inherent sovereign right to govern themselves. The Court today frustrates that choice by nullifying, for failure to comply with the Restatement of Agency, a State Supreme Court decision holding that state law authorizes an enacted initiative’s proponents to defend the law if and when the state’s usual legal advocates decline to do so. The Court’s opinion fails to abide by precedent and misapplies basic principles of justiciability. Those errors necessitate this respectful dissent."
Washington stated joined 12 other states in a “friend-of-the-court” brief, supporting the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and arguing that Prop. 8 violated the Equal Protection Clause.
The Washington State Legislature approved Senate Bill 5688, the “everything-but-marriage” bill, in 2009. Under the measure, same-sex couples were granted the right to enter into domestic partnerships with all the legal rights and responsibilities of married couples, except that a domestic partnership was not a marriage. Opponents garnered enough signatures to refer the measure to voters as Referendum 71, but voters ultimately affirmed these rights of same-sex couples by a vote of 53 percent.
In 2012, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 6239, legalizing same-sex marriage. Again, opponents garnered enough signatures — nearly 250,000 — to refer the measure to voters. Referendum 74 was approved by 53 percent in the November election, while 46 percent voted to reject it. Washington became the ninth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
The states that joined the Perry brief include: Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. The Attorney General of California filed a separate brief in support of same-sex marriage rights.
States joining the Windsor brief include: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.