The United States Supreme Court has voted 5-4 to strike down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prohibited legally married homosexual couples from receiving federal marriage benefits. United States v. Windsor was brought by Edith Windsor, who was denied federal estate tax exemption when her partner—legally recognized as her spouse in the State of New York—died in 2009. According to this ruling, the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause prohibit the federal government from discriminating between marriages, including same-sex marriages, legally conferred by the states.
It appears at this time that the ruling is narrowly crafted and will not have any direct, immediate impact on states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. It does, however, lay a groundwork for a number of future legal challenges. In particular, the ruling does not directly address federal recognition of same-sex couples who are legally married in one state, then move to a state that does not recognize that marriage. The ruling also side-steps numerous Full Faith and Credit clause issues, and leaves unanswered the question of whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause should require all states to recognize same-sex marriages.
The majority opinion in United States v. Windsor was issued by Justice Anthony Kennedy joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Separate dissenting opinions were issued by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel Alito. Thomas also joined, in part, with the dissent written by Alito. Roberts joined, in part, with the dissent by Scalia and Thomas.
The court also separately dismissed Hollingsworth v. Perry by a 5-4 vote. In this case, supporters of California’s Proposition Eight—a voter initiative that outlawed the recognition of same-sex marriage in the state—were found to lack necessary standing to challenge a state court ruling that overturned the law. The effect is that same-sex marriages will continue to be legally recognized in California, even though the voters there acted through referendum to prohibit them.
The majority opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry was issued by Roberts and joined by Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. A dissenting opinion was issued by Kennedy joined by Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor.