United States v. Windsor

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Constitutional Law
  • Date Filed: June 26, 2013
  • Case #: 12-307
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Roberts, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined, and in which Roberts, C. J., joined as to Part I. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined as to Parts II and III.
  • Full Text Opinion

Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutionally violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Section 3 of The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defined “marriage” and “spouse” in a manner which excluded same-sex couples from over 1,000 federal statutes. However, states had the option to recognize same-sex marriages. Respondent and her spouse, a same sex-couple, were married in New York, a state that recognizes same-sex marriages. When Respondent’s spouse passed away, leaving the entirety of her estate to Respondent, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) refused to grant the estate tax exemption for surviving spouses because Respondent was not a spouse under federal law. Respondent paid $363,053 in taxes and now seeks a refund.

Respondent brought suit in district court seeking her refund and declaring §3 unconstitutional for violating the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. While the case was pending in district court, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) stopped defending the constitutionality of §3. By agreeing that § 3 was unconstitutional, but continuing to enforce it, the Executive properly leaves the actual determination of constitutionality to the Judiciary. The court allowed the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) of the House of Representatives to intervene and defend DOMA’s constitutionality as an interested party. On the merits, the district court ruled against the United States and the Second Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court begins by addressing the standing issues presented by the DOJ’s agreement with Respondent’s stance and BLAG’s intervention. Because the Executive continued to enforce DOMA, the Court holds that Article III’s case or controversy requirements are met. BLAG’s adversarial presentation of DOMA’s constitutionality and the immense importance of this case satisfy the Court’s prudential requirements.

While marriage regulation has traditionally been left to the states, there exist discrete examples of federal regulation of marriage in service to larger goals and policies. However, DOMA is not a discrete regulation and runs contrary to the decisions of New York and eleven other states. In addressing it’s people’s wishes and the atmosphere with the state New York exercised federalism in exactly the way intended by the founders. The Court finds that DOMA seeks to injure a group that New York seeks to protect. In doing so it impermissibly violates the constitutional guarantee of due process and equal protection by targeting a class of people and denying them equal treatment.

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