U.S. Supreme Court Decisions on Same-Sex Marriage, June 26, 2013


Today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two highly anticipated decisions affecting the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry. Here are some resources to help you understand the two cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry (Prop 8) and United States v. Windsor (DOMA).

Hollingsworth v. Perry

The U.S. Supreme Court (5-4, authored by Chief Justice Roberts) held that the proponents of California’s Proposition 8 lacked judicial standing to defend the law, and therefore it vacated the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and remanded the case. The practical effect is that Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision at the district court level is reinstated, and that strikes down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional.


District Court (N.D. Cal.)

Appeals Court (9th Cir.)

U.S. Supreme Court

Justia Opinion Summary: The California Supreme Court held that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the California Constitution; state voters then passed a ballot initiative, Proposition 8, amending the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples who wished to marry filed suit in federal court, challenging Proposition 8. State officials refused to defend the law, so the district court allowed the initiative’s official proponents to intervene, declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and enjoined its enforcement. State officials declined to appeal. The intervenors appealed. The Ninth Circuit certified a question, which the California Supreme Court answered: official proponents of a ballot initiative have authority to assert the state’s interest to defend the constitutionality of the initiative when public officials refuse to do so. The Ninth Circuit concluded that petitioners had standing and affirmed.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that the intervenors did not have standing to appeal. Article III of the Constitution confines the power of federal courts to deciding actual “Cases” or “Controversies.” A litigant must demonstrate a personal and tangible harm throughout all stages of litigation. The intervenors had standing to initiate this case against the California officials responsible for enforcing Proposition 8, but once the district court issued its order, they no longer had any injury to redress and state officials chose not to appeal. The intervenors had not been ordered to do or refrain from doing anything. Their “generalized grievance” is insufficient to confer standing. The fact that a state thinks a private party should have standing to seek relief for a generalized grievance cannot override settled law to the contrary.

United States v. Windsor

The U.S. Supreme Court (5-4, authored by Justice Kennedy) held that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.

District Court (S.D.N.Y.)

Appeals Court (2d Cir.)

U.S. Supreme Court

Justia Opinion Summary: Windsor and Spyer, two women, married in Canada in 2007. Their home state, New York, recognized the marriage. Spyer died in 2009 and left her estate to Windsor, who sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. Her claim was barred by section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 28 U.S.C. 1738C, which defined “marriage” and “spouse” to exclude same-sex partners for purposes of federal law. Windsor paid $363,053 in taxes and sought a refund, which the IRS denied. Windsor sued, challenging DOMA. The Department of Justice declined to defend section 3’s constitutionality. The district court ordered a refund, finding section 3 unconstitutional. The Second Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court affirmed, 5-4, first holding that the government retained a stake, sufficient to support Article III jurisdiction, because the unpaid refund is “a real and immediate economic injury.” There was sufficient argument for section 3’s constitutionality to satisfy prudential concerns. DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons under the Fifth Amendment. Regulation of marriage has traditionally been within the authority of the states. DOMA, applicable to more than 1,000 federal statues and all federal regulations, was directed to a class of persons that the laws of New York and 11 other states have sought to protect. DOMA is inconsistent with the principle that marriage laws may vary from state to state, but are consistent within each state. A state’s decision to give a class of persons the right to marry confers a dignity and status of immense import. New York’s decision was a proper exercise of its sovereign authority. By seeking to injure the class New York seeks to protect, DOMA violated basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government. Constitutional guarantees of equality “must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot” justify disparate treatment of the group. DOMA’s history and text indicate a purpose and practical effect to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and a stigma upon those entering into same-sex marriages made lawful by the states. The law deprived some couples married under the laws of their states, but not others, of rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same state; it diminished the stability and predictability of basic personal relations.