United States v. Windsor (DOMA)

Windsor DOMA


What happened?

  • Same-sex couple Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were married and lived in New York, which legally recognizes same-sex marriages.  Spyer died and left her entire estate to Windsor.  Windsor tried to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses but was denied under Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage and spouses as excluding same-sex partners.  Windsor sued, claiming that DOMA violates the principles of equal protection in the 5th Amendment.  The lower courts ruled in favor of Windsor.

How did the Court rule?

  • 5-4 for Windsor.  The lower courts are affirmed and DOMA (in part) is held unconstitutional as a deprivation of equal liberty provided by the 5th Amendment.
  • Same-sex couples who are legally married are entitled to equal treatment under federal law with regard to income taxes, etc.  Only applicable in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
  • DOMA deprived only certain couples who are married under the laws of their state of rights and responsibilities, but not all couples, thus creating a contradiction… same-sex couples living as married for purposes of state law but living as unmarried for the purposes of federal law.
  • The state has broad and virtually exclusive authority to regulate marriage within its borders.  Benefits and obligations from marriage must be uniform for all married couples, thus if a state permits same-sex marriage it must offer everyone the same rights.  A federal statute cannot dictate to a state which marriages can receive what benefits and which marriages cannot.

What did the dissent say?

  • Case was out of Court’s jurisdiction and they are without authority to rule on it.  (A technical legal argument that there must be a “controversy” and “standing” for the SC to hear a case under Article III.  Here, neither party was seeking to undo the relief provided Windsor by the lower courts, both parties were just seeking clarification of the law which is not the SC’s role)
  • State-level changes should not alter the basic operation of federal law unless in the judgment of Congress.  The majority wrongfully attributes motives in the review of the legislative history of DOMA (Scalia)

What does it mean?

  • Same-sex couples (in states that allow same-sex marriage) are now viewed exactly the same on the federal level as opposite-sex couples for purposes of taxes, benefits, etc.
  • Section 2 of DOMA, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states, remains intact.

Leave a Comment