Court Moves Towards Marriage Equality in Landmark DOMA decision

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the landmark U.S. v. Windsor case, holding that the federal law unconstitutionally deprived legally married same-sex couples of equal protection of law under the Fifth Amendment. 

As an overview, the case involves Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a same-sex couple legally married under the laws of the State of New York.  Following Spyer’s death in 2009, Windsor sought to claim a federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses but was barred  under Section 3 of DOMA.  According to the law, the terms “marriage” and “spouse” apply exclusively to a union between a man and a woman for purposes of federal laws and programs.  With DOMA denying federal recognition of same sex marriages, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) concluded Windsor was not a surviving spouse under federal law and denied her refund request of  paid estate taxes.  Accordingly, Windsor sued, alleging that DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.  

The District Court held Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional and that Windsor was entitled to a refund.  The Second Circuit affirmed,  and the Supreme Court granted certiorari thereafter.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy first held that the Court had jurisdiction to hear Windsor given the satisfaction of Constitutionally-imposed requirements and DOMA’s broad impact over a thousand federal statutes and regulations.  Additionally, the Court held that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional because only states—and not the federal government—have the rights and responsibility to define and regulate marriage.  Here, the State of New York recognizes the validity of same-sex marriages and entitles same-sex couples to the same benefits and responsibilities given to married opposite-sex couples.  Thus, DOMA’s deviation from New York’s authority to define marriage “operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriage.” This accordingly violates both due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government under the Fifth Amendment. 

As an effect, the Court’s ruling in Windsor represents a major victory in civil rights and in the fight for marriage equality.   With Section 3 of DOMA struck down, legally married same sex-couples are now entitled to the same treatment as opposite-sex couples with regard to federal benefits and rights (such as income taxes, social security benefits, healthcare, and veterans’ benefits).  The Court’s ruling, however, does not affect states that do not recognize same-sex marriages.  In other words, there is still no constitutional right for same-sex marriage.  The decision, nonetheless, creates an opportunity for civic engagement.  Specifically, Windsor reinstitutes the need for voters to improve the recognition, dignity, and protection of same-sex couples by demanding state legislators to adopt marriage equality laws.  Regardless of individual moral and religious views on same-sex marriage, a law should never discriminate against a group of people; we are all created equal and are entitled to such protection of the law.

Karen A. Egbuna is a third year law student at the Howard University School of Law and proud alumna of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  Karen is also one of the 2013 Kelloggs Law Fellows for the NAACP Law Department.  This fall, she will return to her law school as a Senior Publications Editor for the prestigious Howard Law Journal and continue her work with the Women Law Student Association where she previously served  as Vice President.