The United States Supreme Court issued two opinions this morning. The first is Windsor v. United States, in which Edith Windsor challenged the exorbitant estate tax she had to pay upon the passing of her partner because the federal government considered them unmarried. The second is Hollingsworth v. Perry, in which California citizens challenged Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that reversed the California Supreme Court's ruling that marriage equality is required by the California Constitution.
Here, in brief, is what the Supreme Court ruled. More analysis after the jump.
Windsor v. U.S.
Legally-married same-sex couples are entitled to equal treatment under federal law. For example, they must be treated like all other married couples with regard to income taxes and Social Security benefits.
Hollingsworth v. Perry
Two same-sex couples filed a constitutional challenge to Proposition 8 - which nullified their California marriages - in federal court in California. The District Court found Prop 8 unconstitutional. California government officials agreed that Prop 8 is unconstitutional, and so refused to appeal the decision.
Under California law, private proponents of Proposition 8 were permitted to step in to the appeal. The Supreme Court today rules that, under federal law, private proponents cannot replace the government officials duty-bound to act for the state in a federal lawsuit.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision is vacated in favor of the District Court opinion. Thus, California has marriage equality.
Jurisdiction: The Court's Authority to Hear This Case
In the Windsor case, the first question the Court had to deal with is whether the Appeals Court (and the Supreme Court) had jurisdiction to hear the appeal. Since the United States refused to defend the case on the grounds that it considered DOMA unconstitutional, a group of Congressional legislators took over the defense on behalf of the United States, as explicitly permitted by United States law. The District Court agreed with both Windsor and the United States that DOMA is unconstitutional. It ruled in favor of Windsor.
In order to appeal a ruling, one must be aggrieved by a decision and want it to be overturned by the appeals court. You can't appeal if you're happy with the previous decision. That would be like having a rematch for the boxing title, and one contestant has both hands tied behind their back. It wouldn't be fair and it wouldn't result in a just ruling. Since the United States applauded the decision, and didn't want it overturned, how could it appeal?
The Supreme Court noted that, although the United States agreed with the lower court's ruling, it didn't fork over the dough to Windsor. Rather, it said that it would continue to enforce DOMA, even though it believed it to be unconstitutional.
Windsor was still out $300,000 and change. Since the United States still owed Windsor money, and refused to pay it, the U.S. had a sufficient stake in the case to appeal, even though it was really only pretending to want to win the case for technical purposes of appeal.
Since BLAG put on the boxing gloves for the United States, and really gave its best shot, and since Windsor didn't yet have her check, and since both Houses of Congress submitted briefs to the court, the Court said that was a good enough fight to make it fair and give the appeals court jurisdiction. Also, dismissing the case now would probably spawn a thousand more lawsuits all over the country, and affected the rights of hundreds of thousands of people, and they said that was a factor too. However, they said this was a rare case, and this type of procedure would rarely be allowed.
That's unlike the holding in Perry, which I will analyze next, where the Court held that the private proponents of California's Prop 8 didn't have the right to appeal. That one is based on a totally different (though related) legal point.
Why DOMA Is Unconstitutional
The Court noted that Congress and the federal government have the right to make decisions about how to treat marriages, noting that they can deny entry to a person who enters into a marriage solely for the purpose of procuring entry into the country, and they can decide to override state law on insurance benefits to spouses or former spouses based on beneficiary designations. But they said that DOMA deals with over 1,000 federal benefits, and is so pervasive, that it surpasses the federal government's authority to override state law.
The Court reviewed the history of marriage, and noted that the Federal Government has traditionally deferred to state law on most issues regarding domestic relations. The United States courts will not adjudicate marriage cases, not only because they generally have no jurisdiction over such matters, but even in cases where there is otherwise a basis for federal jurisdiction they leave the issue alone. The Court said: "What the State of New York treats as alike the federal law deems unlike by a law designed to injure the same class the State seeks to protect." In other words, the feds have no business disrespecting state marriages.
This violates the requirements that governments respect the due process of the laws and provide equal protection of the laws to all. While the law is permitted to make all sorts of distinctions and discriminations among various classes and groups of people, it is not permitted to do so because of a "bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group."
In trying to decide whether a discriminating law is motivated by a bare desire to harm an unpopular group, such as gay people (and by extension all LGBT people), the Court noted that it has to look closely at "discriminations of an unusual character." The Court said that the "avowed purpose and practical effect" of DOMA was to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and a stigma on all who enter into same-sex marriages.
The Court also said that, by creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forced couple to live as marriage for purposes of state law, but unmarried for purposes of federal law, "diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect."
The Court also said that DOMA announced that these marriages are unworthy of federal recognition, creating a "second-tier" marriage. It mentioned important distinctions created for same-sex couples in the tax law, in the criminal law, in the laws regarding their children, in laws regarding the duty to provide for children, receipt of Social Security protections, laws regarding federal financial aid eligibility for college.
As a result, the Court held that DOMA deprived same-sex couples of the liberty due them under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and violates the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws.
Next, I will analyze the Hollingsworth decision, which I hope to publish shortly.
This is a great day for liberty.