Today the Supreme Court issued rulings on two historic and controversial cases which challenged the legal validity, at both the state and federal level, of the the traditional definition of marriage. Here are nine things you should know about the cases:
1. The two cases, United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, are each based on differing — and perhaps mutually exclusive — theories of which level of government has the right to define marriage. The challenge to DOMA (Windsor) was based on the claim that marriage is a matter for state rather than federal regulation while the challenge to Proposition 8 (Hollingsworth) was a challenge to to the claim that an individual state can define marriage as between one woman and one man.
2. United States v. Windsor was a direct challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This case was not about whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but rather whether Congress can treat married same-sex couples differently from married opposite-sex couples in federal laws and programs.
3. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a federal law that restricts federal marriage benefits and required inter-state marriage recognition to only opposite-sex marriages. The law passed both houses of Congress by large majorities and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 21, 1996. Section 3 of DOMA codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriages for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, immigration, and the filing of joint tax returns.
4. In a 5-4 decision on Windsor, the Court struck down one section of DOMA and ruled that the federal statute is an unconstitutional deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment. The equal protection violation, according to the Court, arose from Congress’ decision denying rights to marriage provided by the state laws of New York. The majority opinion claims that, “By history and tradition the definition and regulation of marriage has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States.” However, at the end of the ruling it notes, “This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.” This ruling limits federal benefits only to same-sex couples in states where same-sex marriage is legal and does not apply to same-sex couples living in states where their unions are not legally recognized as marriage. Additionally, the ruling does not require states to recognize the redefinition of marriage by other states. The opinion was written by Justice Kennedy and joined by the four liberal Justices — Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
5. In Windsor, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia wrote dissenting opinions, claiming the Court lacks jurisdiction to review the decisions and that Congress acted constitutionally in passing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Scalia writes in his dissent that, “[the Court has] no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation [DOMA]. 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.”
6. Hollingsworth v. Perry was a case challenging whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
7. Proposition 8 was a California ballot proposition and a state constitutional amendment passed in the November 2008 state elections. The measure added a new provision, Section 7.5 of the Declaration of Rights, to the California Constitution, which provides that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” By restricting the recognition of marriage to opposite-sex couples, the proposition effectively overturned the California Supreme Court’s ruling of In re Marriage Cases that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. The wording of Proposition 8 was precisely the same as Proposition 22, which had passed in 2000 but had been invalidated by the State Supreme Court in 2008.
8. In a 5-4 decision on Perry, the Court ruled that opponents of same-sex marriage did not have the constitutional authority, or standing, to defend the law in federal courts after the state refused to appeal its loss at trial years earlier. The ruling says, “[The Supreme Court has] never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here.” The majority opinion was Roberts, Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan with Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor dissenting.
9. The Perry decision makes same-sex marriage legal again in California. But by dismissing the case, the Supreme Court refused to make any broader declarations either for or against same-sex marriage at the state level. UPDATE: ADF says that same-sex marriage is not yet legal in California: “The bottom line is that the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown Prop 8 into legal limbo. We simply do not know what the fate of Prop 8 will be. But under California law, Prop 8 still stands because there is no appellate court decision striking it down, which is necessary to void an initiative of the people in that state.” However, as Lyle Denniston of SCOTUS Blog notes, “Some 18,000 California same-sex couples already had been married when they had a brief chance to do so as the issue developed in that state, but now millions are likely to gain the right to marry when the judge’s ruling is implemented by state officials. Happening perhaps in just a few weeks, that would make California the fourteenth — and largest — state to permit such marriages (along with Washington, D.C.).”
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