In an Historic Decision, U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act

Posted on June 26, 2013

In 2007, after 40 years of romantic partnership, Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer decided to marry in Ontario, Canada. Their marriage was recognized by the State of New York, where they lived. In 2009, when Spyer died, she left her entire estate to her Windsor. Windsor tried to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act prevented her from doing so.

Whereas domestic relations are generally an area of regulation left to the states, DOMA amended the Dictionary Act “by providing a federal definition of marriage and spouse” which excluded same-sex couples, by definition. (U.S. v. Windsor (2013) 570 U.S. ___, at 2.) Quite literally, DOMA edited the federal dictionary. In editing that dictionary, DOMA affected over 1,000 federal laws and thousands of federal regulations.

For Windsor, the direct cost of DOMA, not to mention any of its secondary or tertiary consequences, was $363,053. Windsor tried to claim the surviving spouse exemption from the estate tax, but she was denied. She paid $363,053 in estate taxes and sought a refund, which the IRS denied.

In a 5-4 decision, Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan held that the Defense of Marriage Act is an unconstitutional violation of the Fifth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. They ruled that marriage is an area traditionally left for the states to define and regulate but that Congress does indeed have the power to enact certain laws about marriage that further federal policy. By enacting DOMA, however, Congress violated the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees us equal protection of the laws.

The Supreme Court said:

  • DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal… . The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, see Lawrence, 539 U. S. 558, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.

(Windsor, 570 U. S. ____, at 23.)