Defense of Marriage Act Before SCOTUS Wednesday

Katie Pavlich

3/27/2013 7:32:00 AM - Katie Pavlich

Yesterday the Supreme Court Justices heard arguments about California's Prop 8, legislation legalizing gay marriage in California, which was voted down by California residents. As Guy wrote, it looks as though the Justices may dismiss that case all together. Meanwhile, the Justices will hear arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday. DOMA defines marriage on a federal level as being between one man and one woman.

A section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act says marriage may only be a relationship between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law, regardless of state laws that allow same-sex marriage.

Lower federal courts have struck down the measure, and now the justices, in nearly two hours of scheduled argument Wednesday, will consider whether to follow suit.

The DOMA argument follows Tuesday's case over California's ban on same-sex marriage, a case in which the justices indicated they might avoid a major national ruling on whether America's gays and lesbians have a right to marry.

Marital status is relevant in more than 1,100 federal laws that include estate taxes, Social Security survivor benefits and health benefits for federal employees. Lawsuits around the country have led four federal district courts and two appeals courts to strike down the law's Section 3, which defines marriage. In 2011, the Obama administration abandoned its defense of the law but continues to enforce it. House Republicans are now defending DOMA in the courts.

Same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. The states are Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington. It also was legal in California for less than five months in 2008.

The justices chose for their review the case of Edith Windsor, 83, of New York, who sued to challenge a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her partner of 44 years died in 2009.

Opponents of DOMA will be arguing the law violates constitutional protections of equal treatment under the law while supporters of DOMA will argue the law simply separates state and federal powers when it comes to marriage.

The issue of marriage is traditionally one that states control. Nine states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages.

“DOMA does not bar or invalidate any state-law marriage but leaves states free to decide whether they will recognize same-sex marriages,” said the brief filed by the House Republican leadership, which is defending the law. “DOMA simply asserts the federal government’s right as a separate sovereign to provide its own definition for purposes of its own federal funding and programs.”

As a reminder, DOMA was passed in bipartisan fashion by both Democrats and Republicans.

The law was passed by overwhelming bipartisan congressional majorities and signed by President Bill Clinton back when same-sex marriage was purely hypothetical.