26 June 2013

Law in Plain English: United States v. Windsor

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

My preview of the Windsor case is here.

United States v. Windsor

Windsor married her spouse in Canada, but New York (where she lived) did not recognize same sex marriage. After her spouse died, she filed suit, claiming that she was denied the spousal deduction for federal estate taxes because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Both the District Court and the Second Circuit decided in Windsor's favor, finding DOMA unconstitutional. Three months after Windsor's suit, the federal government also decided to stop enforcing DOMA, believing (as the courts in this case did) that DOMA was unconstitutional. The House of Representative's Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) moved to intervene on behalf of the United States. The results below, and this decision by the federal government, raised the questions before the Court: First, whether the federal government's decision not to defend DOMA took away jurisdiction from the Supreme Court to hear the case (BLAG argues that because the Second Circuit's decision in favor of Windsor was in line with the government's new position not to defend DOMA, the government prevailed and cannot appeal; the government argues otherwise); second, whether BLAG had standing to defend DOMA (because, arguably, their interest in seeing the law enforced does not rise to the level of a specific injury); and third, whether DOMA itself was unconstitutional by violating the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment. The practical impact of this decision is that the federal government cannot deny benefits to same-sex couples.
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