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United States v. Windsor (2013)

Last Updated: 2019

In United States v. Windsor, et al., (2013), the Supreme Court held that a federal law that excluded same-sex partners from the federal definition of marriage violated the requirement of equal protection of the laws under the Fifth Amendment.

In 2007, two New York residents, Edith Windsor and Thea Snyder, wed in Canada. New York recognized the legality of the marriage. Snyder died two years later, leaving her estate to Windsor. When Windsor sought to claim the federal estate-tax exemption as a surviving spouse, the Internal Revenue Service denied the claim because the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevented such claims. DOMA excluded same-sex partners from the definitions of “marriage” and “spouse.”

Windsor paid the taxes, but brought suit seeking a refund on grounds that DOMA violated the Equal Protection Clause. In a 5-4 ruling authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the states, rather than the federal government, play the primary role in regulating domestic relations. Despite the states’ primary role in the area of family law, the Court stated that it was not necessary to decide whether DOMA represented an inappropriate encroachment into the rights of the states: “it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance.” The Court continued that New York’s decision to recognize same-sex marriage fell within the state’s power to regulate family issues.

The Court declared, however, that the federal law was “designed to injure the same class the state seeks to protect.” According to the Court, “DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages.” The Court found that the distinction drawn by DOMA was an inappropriate and unjustifiable one: “[DOMA] demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects.” The Court therefore held DOMA to be an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia charged that the basis for the majority opinion was both unclear and indefensible: “The sum of all the Court’s nonspecific hand-waving is that this law is invalid (maybe on equal-protection grounds, maybe on substantive-due-process grounds, and perhaps with some amorphous federalism component playing a role) . . . .” Scalia contended that the majority erred in finding improper, unconstitutional motives in passing DOMA and that there were many valid justifications for the law. According to Scalia, “the majority has declared open season on any law that . . . can be characterized as mean-spirited.”

SEE ALSO: Equal Protection of the LawsFull Faith and Credit Clause: Article IV, Section 1Identity Politics in the Federal SystemMorality PolicyObergefell v. Hodges (2015)Substantive Due Process;