The Defense of Marriage Act Case in Plain English

It is unlikely that there will be a sweeping declaration that same-sex marriage must be allowed throughout the United States. Nevertheless, following last week’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court, many expect that the Court will find that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional because the federal government does not have the right to supersede the traditional authority of the States to regulate marriage. Here is what the DOMA case is about in plain English.

Section 3 of DOMA is a federal law that was passed in 1996. It states that, for purposes of federal law, the definition of “marriage” and “spouse” is a legal union between one man and one woman. DOMA does not have any effect on state law, and since it was enacted some states have allowed same-sex marriage. This conflict between state and federal law has resulted in a host of legal problems for legally married same-sex couples.

In the high-profile case, United State v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether DOMA deprives legally married same-sex couples of their 5th Amendment right to equal protection under federal law (at minimum, the federal government must have a rational reason for treating classes of people differently). The Windsor case illustrates the impact of DOMA on legally married same-sex couples. Edith Windsor is a widow. She married Thea Clara Spyer in 2007. Their marriage was recognized by New York State. Ms. Spyer died in 2009 and left her estate to Ms. Windsor. The U.S. government imposed $363,000 in federal estate taxes because their marriage was not recognized by federal law. If the federal government recognized their marriage, the estate would have qualified for a marital exemption, and no taxes would have been imposed.

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