WASHINGTON — The Defense of Marriage Act, the law barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legalized by the states, is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday by a 5-4 vote.
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
Justice Kennedy delivered the court’s opinion, and was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito all filed dissenting opinions. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent in whole and parts of Alito’s opinion.
As Kennedy read the majority opinion from the bench, cries were heard in the courtroom when the justice delivered the verdict that DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment. A number of same-sex couples sitting in the audience looked up at the ceiling, while others wiped away tears.
DOMA, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, prevented same-sex couples whose marriages were recognized by their home state from receiving the hundreds of benefits available to other married couples under federal law. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department initially defended DOMA in court despite the administration’s desire to repeal it. But the Justice Department changed course in early 2011, finding that the law was unconstitutional and declining to defend it any longer. (The majority opinion slightly criticized that decision on Wednesday, writing that the “failure to defend the constitutionality of an Act of Congress based on a constitutional theory not yet established in judicial decisions” had “created a procedural dilemma.”) House Republicans have since spent hundreds of thousands of dollars taking over that defense.
Plaintiff Edie Windsor, 84, sued the federal government after the Internal Revenue Service denied her refund request for the $363,000 in federal estate taxes she paid after her spouse, Thea Spyer, died in 2009.
During the March oral arguments in United States v. Windsor, a majority of the court seemed to express doubts about the constitutionality of DOMA. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that supporters of the law seemed to want “two types of marriage,” likening same-sex unions to the “skim milk” version of marriage.
On Wednesday, the court’s majority ruled that the power of the individual state in defining marriage “is of central relevance” and the decision to grant same-sex couples the right to marry is “of immense import.” The state, the court ruled, “used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in this way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community.” The court held that DOMA “because of its reach and extent, departs from this history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage.”
DOMA’s “demonstrated purpose is to ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law,” the majority ruled. “This raises a most serious question under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.” DOMA, the majority said, “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples” and “makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”
Roberts, in his written dissent, said he “would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry” without “more convincing evidence that the Act’s principal purpose was to codify malice.” He said he believed Congress acted constitutionally when it passed legislation to “retain the definition of marriage that, at that point, had been adopted by every State in our Nation, and every nation in the world.”
Scalia delivered his dissent from the bench. “In the majority’s telling,” he said, “this story is black-and-white: hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s Court can handle. Too bad.”
Some, Scalia said, “will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it, that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better.”
In his written dissent, Scalia declared that the Constitution “neither requires nor forbids our society to approve of same-sex marriage, much as it neither requires nor forbids us to approve of no-fault divorce, polygamy, or the consumption of alcohol.” The majority’s opinion, he wrote, declares “open season on any law that (in the opinion of the law’s opponents and any panel of like-minded federal judges) can be characterized as mean-spirited.”
One of the same-sex couples whose eyes had glistened with tears just moments before chuckled to themselves as Scalia spoke, rolling their eyes when he noted that the majority had characterized DOMA supporters as “unhinged members of a wild-eyed lynch mob.”
But Scalia argued the majority’s decision “aggrandizes” the Supreme Court for little other purpose than “to buy a stolen moment in the spotlight.”
After concluding his dissent, Scalia prepared to deliver the verdict in Sekhar v. United States, a comparatively obscure case questioning whether an attorney’s recommendation can be the subject of an extortion attempt under the federal Hobbs Act.
“I’m sorry about that, but this is short,” he joked.
The room erupted in laughter, and the court moved on to its next case.
Shortly after DOMA was struck down, President Barack Obama released a statement celebrating the decision. “This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it,” he said.
Ryan J. Reilly