The decision is out on United States v. Windsor, and the United States Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, has decided that The Defense of Marriage Act, the law barring the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages legalized by the states, is unconstitutional.

US v. Windsor

The basic facts of United States v. Windsor are that 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. The definition of marriage has historically been up to each individual state, and today’s decision returns that power back to each individual state.

Congress historically has usually deferred to the state’s interpretation of marriage. On the instructions for the federal1040 form, the IRS indicates, “state law governs whether you are married or legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree.” There is one significant exception, codified in 1996: “[f]or federal tax purposes, a marriage means only a legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” means a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” That second clause specifically refers to DOMA.

DOMA History

Originally signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996, DOMA prohibited same-sex couples that were legally married in their home state from receiving the same federal benefits available to heterosexual married couples.

In today’s historic ruling, Justice Kennedy, who is often the Court’s swing vote, delivered the opinion in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan joined. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, as did Justice Scalia, in which Justice Thomas joined and Justice Roberts partially joined. Justice Alito also filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas partially joined.

The court reasoned that by seeking to injure the very class that New York sought to protect, DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles.  Justice Kennedy wrote, “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity… 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.”