On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which precludes recognition by federal agencies and programs of same-sex marriages that are valid in the states where they are performed, is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.
In 1996, before any state recognized same-sex marriage, Congress enacted DOMA, Section 3 of which precluded federal agencies and programs from recognizing same-sex marriages. Since DOMA was enacted, 12 states and the District of Columbia have recognized same-sex marriage.
Edith Windsor and Thea Speyer were married in Canada in 2007, and their state of residence, New York, recognized their same-sex marriage as valid. When Speyer died in 2009, Windsor paid $363,000 in federal estate taxes, then sought a refund, which the government denied. Had Windsor been in an opposite-sex marriage, she would not have owed federal estate taxes. She sued, contending that Section 3 of DOMA violates equal protection principles. While the suit was pending, the U.S. Attorney General provided notice that the U.S. Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of Section 3, although it would not provide a refund to Windsor. In response, a bipartisan group of members of Congress intervened to defend Section 3's constitutionality. The district court and the Second Circuit ruled in Windsor's favor, invalidating DOMA Section 3 under the Equal Protection Clause.
The Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-4 decision. The Court first addressed whether it had jurisdiction to consider the case in light of the U.S. Department of Justice's decision not to defend the statute. The Court ruled that the government's decision not to issue a refund to Windsor was sufficient to generate a "case or controversy" providing federal jurisdiction because Windsor experienced a "real and immediate economic injury." The Court also determined that it was not imprudent to address the merits of the case because the congressional intervenors made a "sharp adversarial presentation" that ensured a thorough airing of the arguments on the merits.
The Court then applied federalism principles and the Fifth Amendment to conclude that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional. The definition and regulation of marriage have traditionally been the province of the states. Contrary to that tradition, DOMA Section 3 affects more than 1,000 federal statutes and programs, and it is directed at a class of persons that 12 states and the District of Columbia have sought to protect. The Court reasoned that, while states permitting same-sex marriages do so to "enhance the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class" of same-sex married couples, DOMA Section 3 in contrast imposes "restrictions and disabilities" based upon the same status.
The Court ruled that DOMA Section 3 violates due process and equal protection principles by imposing disadvantages and stigma on a class that states sought to protect, especially in light of the long history of federal acceptance of states' definitions of marriage. "The history of DOMA's enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, a dignity conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was the essence."
The Court's opinion described several federal statutes that, under DOMA, place same-sex married couples and their children in an inferior status in areas such as immigration, taxation, and health benefits, and noted the difficulty imposed on same-sex couples considered equal to opposite-sex married couples under state law but not federal law. Based on its conclusion that "the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage," the Court ruled that DOMA Section 3 deprives those persons of liberty under the Fifth Amendment and affirmed the Second Circuit's judgment.
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, which Justice Thomas joined and which Chief Justice Roberts joined in part. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, which Justice Thomas joined in part.