Gay couples across U.S. learn what rulings mean for themThe Supreme Court made history Wednesday with two victories for marriage equality.
By: Michael Doyle and Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court made history Wednesday with two victories for marriage equality.
In a pair of highly anticipated decisions, the divided court effectively undercut California’s Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. Separately, the court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies same-sex married couples federal benefits. Together, the rulings provide an emphatic, if incomplete, win for advocates of same-sex marriage.
The decisions address different issues, and neither declares a broad constitutional right to same-sex marriage that covers residents of all 50 states. But in each case, acting on the final day of the term that began last October, a slim 5-4 court majority endorsed a position that helps the same-sex marriage cause, as well as individual couples.
The decision to strike down a key part of DOMA means that the federal government can grant a vast array of benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in at least a dozen states.
The ruling still leaves decisions on who’s married and who isn’t to the states. That creates uncertainty for same-sex couples who married in one state but live in any of at least three dozen states that don’t recognize their marriages.
At stake are more than 1,100 federal benefits, including who’s eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits, immigration benefits, military benefits and even whether married same-sex couples may file joint tax returns. In most cases, the answer may depend on where they live.
“It’s a huge sleeper issue that’s now going to come front and center,” said Steve Sanders, an associate professor of law at Indiana University who’s followed the cases that led to Wednesday’s ruling, Windsor v. United States.
Sanders and other legal experts say President Obama and Congress could clarify the law. But some predict that the issue ultimately will find its way back to the Supreme Court. “There’s going to be a lot of work for lawyers,” Sanders said.
For Edith Windsor, Wednesday’s ruling is a victory. Windsor, 84, paid a $363,000 inheritance tax when her wife, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. They were married in Canada, and the state where they resided, New York, recognized their marriage. Under federal law, legally married couples are exempt from the tax Windsor paid.
With Wednesday’s ruling, the federal government owes Windsor a refund.
But it’s unclear how the law will apply outside the 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow same-sex marriage. Some federal agencies might make the determination that married same-sex couples are married regardless of where they live. Others might consider as married only those who live in states where their marriages are legal.
“I’ve got to hope the people who work at these agencies have thought about this,” said Will Baude, a fellow at the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University. “This is not a problem they have had to confront before.”
For tax purposes, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service looks at the state of residence when it determines who may file a joint return. If a same-sex couple were married in Connecticut but live in Kentucky, they might still have to file separately. The same couple also might not qualify for Social Security survivor’s benefits, which they’d receive in a state where same-sex marriage is allowed.
Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, called on Obama and Congress to make sure that married same-sex couples don’t fall through a legal crack.
“Federal recognition for lesbian and gay couples is a massive turning point for equality, but it is not enough until every family is guaranteed complete access to the protections they need regardless of state borders,” Griffin said in a statement.
The Proposition 8 case involved a challenge to the 2008 California ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, the court concluded that the supporters of the California ban lacked the legal standing to defend the measure. For same-sex couples in California, the real-world result could be they’re able to secure marriage licenses within about 25 days, if not sooner.
“As soon as they lift the stay, marriages are on. And wedding bells will ring,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris said at a news conference Wednesday morning.
Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said, “It is not enough that the party invoking the power of the court have a keen interest in the issue,” adding that “because we find that petitioners do not have standing, we have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the 9th Circuit.”
Standing is the legal term for being eligible to file a lawsuit. To have standing, an individual must have a significant interest in the controversy and must either have suffered an injury or face an imminent threat of injury.
The decision eliminates a lower appellate court ruling and leaves intact a trial judge’s order blocking Proposition 8 from taking effect. At the very least, this means that the two same-sex couples who filed the lawsuit against the ballot measure may marry. Advocates say that other same-sex couples in California should be able to take advantage of the ruling, though same-sex marriage opponents suggest this might require further trial-level clarification.
A federal appeals court spokesman said Wednesday that the court will likely take at least 25 days before gay marriages resume in California.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals spokesman said that it will take at least that long for the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to become official. Spokesman Dave Madden said it’s the “general practice” of the appeals court to wait for the high court’s official ruling before taking any action.
The Supreme Court said it may continue to bar gay marriages even beyond the 25-day period if proponents of Proposition 8, the state’s gay marriage ban, ask for a rehearing.
Supporters of the Defense of Marriage Act when it passed included Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who’s now the Senate majority leader, and then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, now the vice president.
The House of Representatives, which passed the bill by an overwhelming 342-67, explained in a committee report that the law was meant to convey “moral disapproval of homosexuality.” One of the law’s chief backers at the time, current Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said during the House debate that homosexual conduct was “based on perversion and ... lust.”
In the years that followed, though, a number of supporters began back-pedaling. The act now is opposed by former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a Republican author of the bill who in July 1996 decried “the flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centered morality (that) are licking at the very foundations of our society: the family unit.”
The Obama administration initially defended the federal law, as is customary for administrations, but it stopped in February 2011 after concluding that Section 3 violated the Constitution. In its place, House Republicans funded the defense of the statute through what’s called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group.
“It is still necessary to introduce legislation to repeal DOMA and strike this law once and for all,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Wednesday afternoon, stating her intention to “introduce that legislation today with 39 co-sponsors in the Senate.”
For all the uncertainties it creates, the court’s decision eliminates one: whether same-sex spouses are eligible for immigration benefits. Until the ruling Wednesday, thousands of gays and lesbians born outside the country were living in legal limbo because though they were legally married to U.S. citizens, the federal government wouldn’t allow them to apply for green cards.
The issue came up during the recent Senate immigration debate. Some Republicans threatened to withdraw their support from the bill if it included benefits for binational same-sex couples. Democrats set aside the provision, hoping the Supreme Court would resolve it.
Because immigration is a federal issue, state law won’t matter when same-sex couples apply for green cards. Lavi Soloway, a New York immigration attorney for many such couples, called the court’s ruling “clear as a bell.”
“This is a watershed moment,” he said. “It will bring gay and lesbian Americans into our immigration system.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.