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Eric Breese (L) of Rochester, New York, joins fellow George Washington University students and hundreds of others to rally outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in a case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) March 27, 2013
United States Supreme Court strikes down part of DOMA, dismisses Prop. 8 appeal

in UNITED STATES, 26/06/2013

Last December, the Supreme Court granted certiorari on two same sex marriage cases. Those cases include Hollingsworth v. Perry, a challenge to California’s controversial Proposition 8 measure, and a case out of New York, U.S. v Windsor, which considers the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Today, the Supreme Court is issuing opinions on these two matters. While the two matters, Proposition 8 and defense of DOMA, feel connected, on legal grounds, they’re very different. First up, DOMA:

DOMA was declared unconstitutional. And here’s a brief explanation (more coverage to come):

With respect to U.S. v Windsor – the DOMA case with a tax angle – it wasn’t so much about the individual rights of folks to marry but the rights of states to make rules that are at odds with the federal government. Edith Windsor, a resident of New York, married Thea Spyer, her partner of 40 years, and that marriage was recognized by the state of New York. However, Spyder’s estate was required to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes on the transfer of her assets to Windsor because the federal government did not recognize same sex marriages because of DOMA. (There are not taxes imposed on an estate left to a citizen spouse, no matter how large that estate is.)

Traditionally, the federal government has tended to defer to the the states’ interpretation of marriage. In fact, on the instructions for the federal form 1040, the IRS indicates that “state law governs whether you are married or legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree.” But there’s a significant exception: “[f]or federal tax purposes, a marriage means only a legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” means a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” That’s because of DOMA, which became law in 1996.

But the Supreme Court today said that isn’t okay, writing, “DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”

Liberals and conservatives alike should cheer this ruling. It’s a victory for equal protection under the law but also for states’ rights. From the opinion:

"DOMA’s history of enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute… DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages."

But be careful: this isn’t an affirmation that same sex marriage should be legal in every state. It is more than the federal government does not have the right to overturn a particular state’s decision in that case. Expect to see more activities by the individual states on this point – but that’s a good thing. The definition of marriage has always been in the purview of states – single sex marriage excepted – and it can now remain so.

You can read the opinion here (downloads as a pdf).

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