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Politics | What does the Supreme Court’s Decision on DOMA mean?‏


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Just two years ago, gays and lesbians were prevented from serving openly in the military. Now, with the Supreme Court ruling this week, same-sex spouses of gay veterans and service members will be able to share in their benefits.

What is DOMA?

In 1996, President Clinton signed into law a bill that defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of federal law. This law was called The Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA. Last week the Supreme Court struck down this law by a 5-4 decision with the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

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United States v. Windsor concerned Edith Windsor, who was widowed when her wife Thea Spyer died in 2009. In 2007, Windsor and Spyer were married in Canada after being partners for 40 years. Windsor was forced to pay $363,053 in estate tax on Spyer’s estate, which she argues she would not have to pay if she had been Spyer’s husband which she claims DOMA prevented her from being considered Spyer’s spouse for the purposes of federal taxes. This literally cost her a tax bill of $363,053.

How did we arrive here?

In the past, the Obama administration has declined to defend DOMA, so a standing organization in Congress called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) took over the law’s defense at the instruction of the House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Two courts, the Southern District Court of New York and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that DOMA’S definition of marriage as between a man and a woman lacked a rational basis, therefore prompted the Supreme Court to consider the case.

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According to the Washington Post the issues the High Court had to decide on were:

  1. Equal protection issue.
  2. Does the court have jurisdiction?
  3. Would BLAG be harmed if overturned? In other words, does it have standing to defend the law?

Justice Kennedy’s ruling held that the court did have jurisdiction in the case but his ruling was solely based on his judgment that DOMA violates the equal protection clause.

What does this mean for the winners (gay couples)?

It seems clear that legally married same-sex couples where one member is employed by the federal government are entitled to spousal benefits, just the same as any other married couple. For other legally married couples that don’t live in states where same-sex marriages are recognized, there’s some question as to whether the “state of celebration and/or residence” matters. Usually, the former is the standard used, meaning a marriage is valid if it’s valid in the state it was celebrated. That would mean most legally married same-sex couples, regardless of where they live, are entitled to spousal benefits.

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This opens the door for bi-national same-sex couples to be treated equally under the law. That means that comprehensive immigration reform, which passed the Senate the same week of the Supreme Court’s decision, probably need not include a provision specifically tailored to making sure bi-national partners of same-sex couples can get visas automatically, the same as opposite-sex partners. We will see this issue back in the hands of the High Court sooner rather than later.

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