The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which President Clinton signed into law, is unconstitutional, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority ruled Wednesday. However, the Court stopped short of declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right. In a related case, the Court refused to rule on California’s Proposition 8, the voter-approved 2008 measure that amended that state’s constitution to prohibit gay marriage.
The United States v. Windsor case involved Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, two lesbians who married in 2007 after New York legalized same-sex marriage. After Spyer died, Windsor tried to claim a federal exemption to the estate tax for surviving spouses, a claim the Internal Revenue Service denied, citing DOMA, and requiring Windsor to pay more than $300,000 in taxes on Spyer’s estate.
Wednesday’s decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, cited the “equal liberty” provision of the Fifth Amendment in striking down DOMA. Kennedy also cited “due process” and “equal protection,” as well as the Court’s own 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling, which struck down that state’s law against sodomy. Kennedy was joined by the Court’s four liberal justices, Steven Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. In a scathing dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia declared:
This case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today’s opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution in America.
The Court is eager — hungry — to tell everyone its view of the legal question at the heart of this case. Standing in the way is an obstacle, a technicality of little interest to anyone but the people of We the People, who created it as a barrier against judges’ intrusion into their lives.
Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent. Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts field separate dissents.
- Adam Liptak, New York Times: Supreme Court Bolsters Gay Marriage With Two Major Rulings
- Lawrence Hurley, Reuters: Supreme Court delivers wins for gay marriage movement