The Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday in a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy. The Court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional because it denied equal protection of the laws to same-sex couples.
“DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty,” according to the opinion.
By deciding the case on equal protection grounds, in addition to the more narrow grounds of federalism principles, the court handed a major victory to proponents of gay and lesbian rights.
Section 3 of the act defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” for the purposes of federal law.
Edith Windsor, a New York resident, was married in Canada to her wife, Thea Spyer. When Spyer died, Windsor was required to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes that she would not have been required to pay if the federal government had recognized their marriage. She challenged DOMA in court, arguing that it denied her equal protection of the laws.
The Justice Department threw a wrinkle in the case when it announced that it would not defend DOMA in court. The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, a standing body of the U.S. House of Representatives, took over the defense of the case at the behest of Speaker John Boehner. Although Windsor’s attorneys did not contest BLAG’s standing to intervene in the case, the court asked the parties to address the issue.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Section 3 unconstitutional, as had the 1st Circuit in another case.