United States v. Windsor (2013)

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The Supreme Court case which held that the Defense of Marriage Act’s (DOMA) provision excluding same-sex married individuals from the definition of spouse violated the protections afforded by Fifth Amendment and was thus unconstitutional. (Read the opinion here)

In a majority delivered by Justice Kennedy, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision that DOMA’s exclusion of same-sex married couples from the definition of spouse was unconstitutional. In 2007, Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer married in Canada. After moving to New York City, and upon Spyer’s death in 2009, Windsor attempted to claim the estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. That claim was denied because under DOMA same-sex couples were not eligible to file for the exemption. DOMA only included heterosexual couples within its purview. Windsor paid the taxes but filed a lawsuit to reclaim that money and, therefore, challenge the constitutionality of DOMA’s key provision.

In 1996, Congress enacted DOMA which made all federal interpretations of “marriage” to mean “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Windsor’s suit alleged that DOMA violated the guarantee of equal protection under the Fifth Amendment.

After a lengthy explication of the rights of individual states to define domestic relations, Justice Kennedy wrote that DOMA’s definition of marriage (contrary to that of New York which recognizes same-sex marriage) sought to discriminatorily injure a class of persons. In his review of the legislative history of DOMA, Justice Kennedy found that DOMA’s purpose was to stigmatize and differentiate same-sex couples from the ‘traditional heterosexual marriage.’

The Court found particularly important that even if a state, like New York, legalizes same-sex marriage, DOMA’s applicability to 1,000 or more federal statutes and regulations would frustrate a state’s purpose in creating equality between homosexual and heterosexual couples. DOMA thereby creates tension between a same-sex couple’s rights under state law and federal law, resulting in a patchwork of laws that frustrates stability and predictability for homosexual couples. Not only was the Court concerned with the creation of a general perception of same-sex marriages as second class, but also with the very tangible consequences that results from not recognizing these unions: failure to obtain certain joint healthcare benefits, an inability to file state and federal taxes in a uniform way, and so on. In sum, “DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriage of others.” And for that reason, the Court held that DOMA violated the protections afforded to citizens under the Fifth Amendment.

Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissent in which he argued that the Court lacked jurisdiction to decide the case and also that DOMA was constitutional. He primarily argued that the background of DOMA does not evince a bare purpose to harm that the majority parses out of the statute’s legislative history.

Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justice Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts, argued that Windsor redressed her injury in the lower court and no controversy existed because the Government supported her position. According to Justice Scalia, the Court went out of its way to say what the law is—a function not constitutionally delegated to it. On the merits, Justice Scalia asserted that defining marriage as between a man and woman does not necessarily demean same-sex couples. Congress might have had legitimate policy rationales for making such a judgment, like resolving difficult choice of law issues among states with conflicting definitions of marriage.

Justice Alito, in a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, agreed with the other dissents that the case before the Court lacked controversy and therefore was not properly before it. Justice Alito argued that the Fifth Amendment protects those rights rooted in America’s history and traditions. In this case Windsor sought for the United States to recognize a new right. According to Justice Alito, because the Constitution does not speak to the issue of same-sex marriage, the issue whether it should be legalized must be left to the people, and their elected representatives, and not to the courts.