High court defers marriage question to states

WASHINGTON D.C. — Decisions were handed down by the United States Supreme Court today on the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.

The court ruled in United States v. Windsor that, under the Fifth Amendment, the federal government does not have a right to enact its own policy to define marriage that is in opposition to the policies of the states. This decision is in direct opposition to Section 3 of DOMA, thus nullifying the law.

DOMA did not serve to prevent states to define and regulate marriage for its own purposes, the decision read, but “the enactment’s comprehensive definition of marriage for purposes of all federal statutes and other regulations or directives covered by its terms … does control over 1,000 federal laws in which marital or spousal status is addressed as a matter of federal law.”

Section 3 states, “In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

The majority opinion in the case explained that the role of defining marriage and providing its associated legal benefits has traditionally been left to the states.

The initial impact of the decision will be to extend federal benefits to same-sex couples whose partnerships are recognized by the states in which they reside.

One female questioner on SCOTUSblog wondered at the implications of the decision: “So does this mean that I’ll be able to file joint taxes with my wife?”

Amy Howe, the blog’s editor, responded in the affirmative. “Perhaps for the first time ever, many people will be eager to file their taxes next April 15.”

The decision was made on federalist grounds, affirming the prior right of states to define and regulate marriage. Thus, the Court did not declare a constitutional right to marriage to couples of the same sex.

The court this morning also decided to dismiss the case known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, which concerned the constitutionality of the State of California’s Proposition 8, a statewide ballot measure that defined marriage in the state as a union between one man and one woman.

After Proposition 8 narrowly garnered a majority vote in the state in 2008, it was later declared unconstitutional, on 14th Amendment grounds, by a federal district court in 2010. When the state government did not react to defend the law, the measure’s supporters were allowed by that same district court to appeal the decision in defense of Proposition 8. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that the measure’s proponents should have the right to defend it in court, after a decision to that effect by the California Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, argued that private citizens have no standing in a federal court to defend the interests of state law. Only state officials can do that, the decision said. The Court designates Article III of the Constitution and judicial precedent as the basis for its claim.

“We have 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 dismissal of the case means that the original district court decision to nullify Proposition 8 remains standing for the time being. The State of California will therefore continue to recognize same-sex marriages.

Both decisions were handed down with a 5-4 vote. United States v. Windsor was split along predictable ideological lines. The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan-appointee who is generally regarded as a swing vote.

The majority and dissent of Hollingsworth v. Perry were both composed of a mixed bag of conservatives and liberals. The majority opinion was written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of George W. Bush.

Neither of today’s court decisions gave a definitive opinion on the definition of marriage as pertaining to the law, nor on its accompanying rights and obligations.


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