The Supreme Court is expected to rule on two important gay marriage cases very soon.
Here’s what you need to know about them:
Defense of Marriage Act: Windsor v. U.S.
AT ISSUE: Whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act violates equal protection guarantees in the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause as applied to same-sex couples legally married under the laws of their states.
THE CASES: Edith “Edie” Windsor was forced to assume an estate tax bill much larger than those other married couples would have to pay. Because her partner was a woman, the federal government did not recognize the same-sex marriage legally, even though their home state of New York did. The law known as DOMA defines marriage for federal purposes as a union between a man and woman only.
The legal issue is whether the federal government can deny tax, health and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry. Federal appeals courts in New York and Boston struck the benefits provision, with judges in one case saying, “If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress’ will, this statute fails that test.”
THE ARGUMENTS: Federal courts have not yet addressed the federal law’s other key provision: states that do not allow same-sex marriages cannot be forced to recognize such unions performed in other states. Traditionally, marriages in one jurisdiction are considered valid across the country.
THE OUTCOME: There are many options. The simplest solution would be for the court to dismiss the appeal on standing grounds, or who has a right to bring a case before the court. That would leave the lower courts or the other branches to decide who would defend DOMA. But if the court strikes down the benefits provision — the only part of DOMA at issue here — that would create many unanswered questions, especially in those states that currently ban gay marriage.
THE IMPACT: The Obama administration, in a rare move, has refused to defend a federal law in court. That left the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to file the legal appeals to the high court, creating unusual questions about standing.
California ballot measure (Proposition 8): Hollingsworth v. Perry
AT ISSUE: Whether the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of “equal protection” prevents states from defining marriage as being only between one man and one woman.
THE CASE: The “Prop 8” case, as it has become known, has been down a complicated legal road. California’s Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriages were legal in 2008. After the statewide ballot measure banning them passed with 52% of the vote later that year, gay and lesbian marriages were put on hold. Then a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled the measure unconstitutional. In its split decision, the panel found Proposition 8 “works a meaningful harm to gays and lesbians” by denying their right to civil marriage.
THE ARGUMENTS: California is the only state that accepted, then revoked, same-sex marriage as a legal right. The measure’s supporters asked the justices to preserve the will of the voters in this politically charged social issue. Opponents of Prop 8 seek a court-ordered expansion of the “traditional” views of marriage.
THE OUTCOME: With so many options, the simplest one would be to “DIG” it — dismiss the case as “improvidently granted,” meaning the larger constitutional issues would not be settled, at least now. That could throw the case back to the lower courts to sort out the jurisdictional issues and perhaps allow another voter referendum next year on gay marriage. A sweeping ruling on whether same-sex marriage is a fundamental constitutional right seems unlikely.
THE IMPACT: Currently, same-sex marriage is allowed in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Delaware and Minnesota’s recently passed laws take effect this summer. It is estimated about 120,000 legally married same-sex couples live in the United States.
Another seven or so states recognize civil unions or broad domestic partnerships, providing state-level spousal rights to same-sex couples. Obama, who previously opposed same-sex marriage, said he now supports it.
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