A (Fairly) Quick Summary of the June 26th Supreme Court Rulings

Read the lengthier, better explained version here

DOMA, a.k.a The Defense of Marriage Act, is a law that was enacted by the 104th Congress in 1996 seeking to ‘define and protect the institution of marriage’ by declaring that the federal government will only apply marriage benefits to marriages between a male and female. It was signed into law by President Clinton. In 2007, New York residents Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were wed in Canada. When Thea Spyer died in 2009 and left her entire estate to Edith Windsor, Windsor was forced to pay $363,053 in federal taxes because they were not married in the eyes of the federal government, thanks to DOMA, so the “estate tax exemption” (basically, when someone dies and leaves their estate to their spouse, the surviving spouse doesn’t have to pay a tax for the transfer of the estate) for surviving spouses did not apply to them. Windsor filed a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that she should receive a refund for the tax she had to pay, because they were married. Legally, she was asking the Supreme Court to decide whether or not the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, because that was the heart of her problem. Her case is known as United States v. Windsor.

There were three possible outcomes for the DOMA case:

  • Strike Down: The Supreme Court might decide to declare all or part of DOMA unconstitutional, which would mean that it (or certain parts of it) would not longer be a law. In the DOMA case, they were asked to review the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA specifically, which is the section that declares that marriage is only between a man and woman in the eyes of the federal government.
  • Uphold: The Supreme Court might instead decide that DOMA is constitutional, so the law would still be in effect.
  • Decline to rule: The Supreme Court might declare that they cannot rule on this case because it was not properly defended. This would mean that the court believes that BLAG should not have stepped in for the DoJ. If they declined to rule, the case would be sent to a lower court to be decided.

The Supreme Court decided to strike down DOMA. They did not declare same-sex marriage a right to all citizens, though, so the government will give benefits to those same-sex couples that were married in states that recognize same-sex marriage.

Now onto Proposition 8. In the 2008 elections, there was a ballot initiative in California that asked the voters if they believed that California should only recognize marriages between a man and a woman. This ballot initiative was a response to the California Supreme Court’s (I’ll abbreviate to CSC) ruling in May 2008 that bans on same-sex marriage were illegal under Article 1, Section 7 of the California Constitution. That CSC ruling was a response to two same-sex marriage bans, one in 1977 by the state legislature, and one by voters in 2000 (Proposition 22, which was worded exactly the same as Proposition 8). The case that went to SCOTUS is known as Hollingsworth v. Perry.

There were several possible rulings from SCOTUS on the Prop 8 case:

  • Strike down Prop 8, because all marriage bans are unconstitutional. This would result in same-sex marriage legality in all 50 states. Basis for decision: Equal Protection clause, Due process clause
  • Strike down Prop 8, because civil unions and domestic partnerships are separate and unequal. This is known as the “seven-state ruling”, because it would force the seven states that currently allow civil unions and domestic partnerships to recognize same-sex marriage instead. That would mean 19 states would allow same-sex marriage. Basis for decision: Plessy v. Ferguson precedent, Equal Protection clause
  • Strike down Prop 8, because a state can’t eliminate marriage equality. This would say that if a state recognizes same-sex marriage, it cannot later decide to not recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage would return only to California in this case. Basis for decision: Equal Protection clause, Due process clause
  • Uphold Prop 8. This would say that states have the right and discretion to ban or permit same-sex marriage. Judge Walker’s ruling would be overturned, and same-sex marriage would be banned in California.
  • Decline to rule, because the Prop 8 proponents don’t have standing. This would say that those who appealed the rulings to bring the case up to the Supreme Court do not have the legal ability to do so, because they had no legal right to defend the law. In this case, the lower court ruling by Judge Walker would stand, and same-sex marriage would return to California.
  • Decline to rule, because it should not have granted review. I don’t understand this possibility completely, but I believe it has to do with the court only reviewing cases from district courts that have to do with redistricting and similar types of cases, so it should not have granted review to this because it did not pertain to redistricting. In this case, the lower court ruling by Judge Walker would stand, and same-sex marriage would return to California.

SCOTUS also announced their ruling on Prop 8 today. They chose to decline to rule, because the proponents of Prop 8 don’t have standing. So the decision only affects California, and the lower court ruling by Judge Walker stands. Same-sex marriage is legal once and for all in California!

My ask box can be found at http://austinjosephanderson.tumblr.com/ask, or you can tweet me at @ajanderson69.

Note: I am not a lawyer, so I may have missed some important information, mixed up something, or said something completely incorrect. If so, my apologies. This is my best understanding of the history of these two cases, albeit somewhat reduced to save you some time. If a mistake is reported to me, I will do my best to fix it. I tried writing this as plainly as I could think about it, but I can’t guarantee that it won’t be confusing to those who don’t follow politics or understand legal speak. That is why I really recommend that you ask me any questions you still have, so I can explain it in a different way and make it more understandable for everyone else.

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