Justices rule Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and clear way for same-sex marriage to be restored in Californiahttp://www.maltatoday.com.mt/en/newsdetails/news/world/Doma-struck-down-on-historic-day-for-gay-rights-in-America-20130627
Thursday 27 June 2013 - 09:11
A landmark supreme court ruling struck down a controversial federal law that discriminated against gay couples in the US, delivering a stunning victory on Wednesday to campaigners who fought for years to overturn it.
The court also dismissed a separate appeal against same-sex marriage laws in California, restoring the right to gay marriage in the largest US state and nearly doubling the number of Americans living in states where gay marriage would be legal.
Together, the two rulings mark the biggest advance in civil liberties for gay people in a generation, and come amid growing political and international recognition that same-sex couples deserve equal legal treatment.
As reporters sprinted from the chamber down the court steps to deliver the news of the rulings, a roar built up from the crowd that had been waiting outside since the night before.
The most significant legal breakthrough came in the decision led by Justice Anthony Kennedy to rule that the Defense of Marriage Act (Doma) was unconstitutional because it deprived citizens of "equal liberty" before the law.
Doma, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, previously barred married gay couples from a range of crucial legal rights including federal tax and estate tax exemptions, social security benefits, and the right to be notified of the death of next of kin. It also meant that the married partners of gay Americans were not recognised under the immigration system, leading to heartbreaking splits for couples of different nationalities.
But in a case brought by an 84-year-old resident of New York, Edith Windsor, who faced a $313,000 estate tax bill after the death of her partner of 40 years, lawyers successfully argued that Doma was an unconstitutional interference by Congress in the rights of states to determine marriage laws.
"Doma instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others," said the opinion, written by Kennedy and supported by a total of five of the nine court justices.
"The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the fifth amendment."
The significance of the argument signed by Kennedy and four other justices goes beyond one law. By declaring that gay people are deserving of equal protection under the constitution, it makes it more difficult to pass discriminatory laws in the future.
Antonin Scalia, the arch-conservative justice, led a blistering dissent. He callled the decision on Doma and the technical ruling that the court had jurisdiction over such matters "jaw-dropping". Reading from the bench, he said: "Both spring from the same diseased root: an exalted notion of the role of this court in American democratic society."
But the justices' majority decisions were greeted with jubilation among gay rights campaigners. President Obama called the Doma ruling a "historic step forward for marriage equality" and said he had ordered government departments to implement it as quickly as possible.
"I've directed the attorney general to work with other members of my cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly," he said.
Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary, said benefits would extended to the spouses of all servicemen and women, regardless of sexual orientation.
James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union said: "This historic ruling recognizes how unfair it is to treat married lesbian and gay couples as though they're legal strangers. Edie and Thea were there for each other in sickness and in health like any other married couple. It's only right for the federal government to recognize their marriage and the life they built together."
In a separate decision on a 2008 California ballot measure known as Proposition 8, the justices ruled that anti-gay marriage campaigners did not have legal "standing". The ruling paves the way for the restoration of gay marriage in California, which was permitted before a majority of voters blocked it under the 2008 ballot challenge.
Prop 8 was ruled later unconstitutional by two lower courts, whose rulings now stand. The supreme court opinion said that anti-gay marriage campaigners who brought the appeal could not show they had suffered injury.
"[The] petitioners have no role - special or otherwise - in its enforcement," said the majority decision, written by the chief justice, John Roberts. "They therefore have no 'personal stake' in defending its enforcement that is distinguishable from the general interest of every California citizen."
Same-sex couples will be able to marry in California when a federal appeals court lifts a temporary ban on gay marriage in the state, which has been in force since Prop 8 passed. The governor of California, Jerry Brown, said he had directed county clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as soon as the ban was lifted. The process is likely to take about a month.
David Boies, one of the lawyers who argued against Prop 8, said the court's finding of no standing was significant because the court threw out the argument that same-sex marriage somehow harms people outside the marriage.
"They cannot point to anything that harms them, because these two loving couples, and loving couples like them in the state of California, are now going to be able to get married," he said in a statement on the steps of the court. With the defeat of Prop 8 in California, same-sex marriage would be legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia.
At New York City's LGBT Center, where Edith Windsor gave a press conference, people exchanged hugs and high-fives when the news came through. Windsor said that she wished her wife, Thea Spyer, had been alive to see the decision. "My first reaction was tears," she said. "Then I cheered, obviously." The couple married in 2007 after 40 years together. Spyer died in 2009.
Glennda Testone, executive director of the center, said: "Every day we see same-sex couples come through our doors, my friends, my family, people who just want to be recognized for the loving relationships they've nurtured, people with children who just want to be protected. Today, the supreme court took a step to make sure it happens."
She added: "I woke up this morning thinking of Edie. This was Edie's chance for her relationship to be recognized on a national, broad level."
Testone said that while thrilled with the Doma ruling, the LGBT community still must work to aid students who are bullied at schools, immigrants whose relationships are split, and transgender people who still face discrimination.