United States v. Windsor (DOMA): A Quick Overview

Below are quotes from the Supreme Court’s majority decision today in the case of United States v. Windsor, which declared unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act’s third section in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Kennedy.

“The definition of marriage is the foundation of the State’s broader authority to regulate the subject of domestic relations with respect to the ‘[p]rotection of offspring, property interests, and the enforcement of marital responsibilities.’” (17)

“. . . The Federal Government, through our history, has deferred to state-law policy decisions with respect to domestic relations.” (17)

“The Act’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. This raises a most serious question under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.” (22)

“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And DOMA contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities. By creating two contradictory marriages regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choice the Constitution protects…and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raise by same-sex couples.” (22-23)

“What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage.” (25)

“The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws…While the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from Government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does, the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes that Fifth Amendment right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.” (25)

“DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for not legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to inure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. 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.” (25-26)

The essence of this opinion is that the power to regulate marriage is one that the states have long held, and the Defense of Marriage Act contradicts the efforts of states that allow same-sex marriage, usurping the states’ authority in the process. Section two of the Act, which says that states that choose not to recognize same-sex relationships need not recognize those from other states, was not considered by the majority and consequently still stands.

This means that same-sex marriage will only be able to progress on a state-by-state basis, if it is going to do so.


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