Supreme Court issues victory for gay rights, strikes down DOMA

Brooklyn activist: It's a `monumental victory'

June 26, 2013 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The United States Supreme Court issued two rulings on Wednesday that have been cited as a major victory for the gay rights movement in America.

The court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that prevented same sex couples from receiving federal benefits akin to heterosexual couples, and found technical flaws in the challenge against the repeal of Proposition 8, California’s controversial ballot initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

DOMA had been challenged by Edith Windsor, who sued the federal government after being made to pay over $300,000 in estate taxes on her late wife’s estate because the government did not recognize her marriage to her partner of more than 40 years.

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Under the tax rules applied to heterosexual couples, spouses do not have to pay estate taxes. In the suit, Windsor argued that DOMA violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution because it requires the government to treat same-sex couples who are legally married as strangers.

“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” said Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority of the court. Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, with Justice Antonin Scalia filing a dissent joined by  Justices John Roberts and Clarence Thomas.  

“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal,” Kennedy wrote, finding that DOMA deprived persons in same-sex relationships the right to equal liberty under the constitution.

“Yes, it has happened,” said Marc Levine, head of the Gay/Straight Alliance of New York State Courts. “Same-sex marriages performed here in NYS are now recognized by the federal government!” In 2011, New York became the sixth state, at that time, to legalize gay marriage.

“Today’s decision is a monumental victory for lesbian and gay couples and families across the country,” said Erin Drinkwater, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Pride Center. “Today the court affirmed that loving couples everywhere who marry are subject to equal legal treatment, and we could not be more pleased.”

The ruling in the Proposition 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, was one based on procedural grounds rather than on its merits.  In 2008, California voted to define marriage as between a man and a woman with the ballot initiative Proposition 8.  Proponents of gay marriage filed a case against Prop 8 in federal court, and California state officials, including then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, refused to defend the anti-gay marriage law. The federal district court allowed proponents of Proposition 8 to defend the law in their stead.

The district court ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, and although the state officials refused to appeal the decision, the defenders moved forward with an appeal. The Supreme Court held that the defenders of Proposition 8 did not have standing, or authority, to appeal the case.

In order to have standing to bring a suit or an appeal, the party must be injured or harmed by the challenged law. In this case, the parties that were harmed were those denied rights under Proposition 8.

After Proposition 8 was ruled unconstitutional by a lower federal court, the harm created by Proposition 8 no longer existed. As such, the Supreme Court held, “We have no authority to decide this case on the merits.” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia. This was an odd assortment of justices, commented Levine.

“This decision marks a historic day for California families and couples who will now be able to enjoy the full benefits, rights and responsibilities of marriage,” remarked Drinkwater.  

Because the court did not issue a ruling on the merits of constitutionality of Proposition 8, the lower federal court ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional still stands.

“Bravo to the Supreme Court as our nation has taken another step towards a day when every lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender American is treated with liberty and justice,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. “In recognition of this historic decision, I am proud to raise the Pride Flag over Borough Hall in Brooklyn — home to one of the largest, most vibrant LGBT communities in the country and the largest lesbian community on the East Coast.”

Brooklyn held Pride celebrations earlier this month. The New York City Pride parade will be held this weekend.

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