Tomorrow, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to hear a same-sex marriage case this term. While the Court has an array of petitions to choose from–five Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) cases, the California Proposition 8 challenge, and an Arizona state benefits case are all on deck–it looks likely that at least one DOMA case will get the nod if it does tackle the issue. (And not just because Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg predicted it would earlier this year.) The Proposition 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, may be flashier, but it concerns a constitutional amendment that affects only same-sex marriages in California. On the other hand, DOMA creates a conflict between the federal government and any state that recognizes same-sex marriage, a group that has now grown to nine (plus the District of Columbia) and counting. As the number of legally married gay couples continues to climb, it is in the interests of the Supreme Court to decide DOMA’s constitutionality sooner rather than later.
Should the Court hear a DOMA challenge, what will be at stake for both sides? The five DOMA cases all arise from a dispute between state and federal definitions of marriage, which has been steadily brewing since the 1996 passage of the Defense of Marriage Act. While family law has traditionally been left to the states, Section 3 of DOMA defines “marriage” for federal purposes as a legal union between one woman and one man, and a “spouse” as an opposite-sex husband or wife. In the places that have recognized marriages between two women or two men, however, same-sex spouses find themselves caught in a strange limbo where they are legally married in the eyes of the state but not in the eyes of the federal government. They receive all the state benefits and privileges that marriage affords, but DOMA prevents them from enjoying the many federal benefits of marriage* that their heterosexual counterparts receive, including Social Security survivors’ benefits, joint income tax filings, shorter green card waiting times for non-citizen spouses, freedom from estate taxes on a deceased spouse’s assets, and family coverage on federal employer health insurance plans.
The DOMA challengers from Massachusetts (Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), New York (Windsor v. United States), Connecticut (Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management) and California (Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management) are a sympathetic bunch. They include a federal government employee wishing to enroll her family in her health insurance plan, a senior hit with over $300,000 in federal estate taxes for an inheritance left by her wife, and a veteran denied Family Medical Leave Act time off to take a sick spouse to medical treatments. The challengers argue that the differential treatment between opposite-sex and same-sex married couples violates the Equal Protection Clause, and that the federal government impinges on states’ rights by refusing to recognize same-sex marriage where states have chosen to legalize it. In all five cases, the federal appellate circuit courts agreed with them. On the other hand, the supporters of DOMA maintain that the federal government has a right to its own definition of marriage for the purposes of federal funding and programs, and that DOMA merely reaffirms what the executive and judiciary branches have always believed: namely, that marriage can only be between a “traditional male-female couple.”
Adding a wrinkle to this scenario is the fact that the executive branch has actually been doing everything in its power to get the judiciary to step in and resolve the issue in favor of the anti-DOMA side. In February 2011, the Obama administration announced that the Department of Justice would no longer defend DOMA in legal challenges, including the five cases before the Supreme Court now, because it believed Section 3 to be unconstitutional. (The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group from the House of Representatives now defends DOMA in court.) At the same time, the administration signaled its intention to keep enforcing the law (by continuing to reject federal benefits applications from same-sex married couples) until either Congress repealed the law or the Supreme Court decided its constitutionality. While this may seem counterintuitive, this bifurcated method of enforcing but not defending a federal law ensured that all five cases had a chance to keep moving through the federal appeals system and reach the Supreme Court. Granting the plaintiffs their benefits in the middle of a case would have removed their immediate cause for complaint and mooted their lawsuits before an appellate court could find the underlying law unconstitutional. Keeping the plaintiffs’ injury alive, however, kept the cases in play. Now that they have reached the certiorari stage, the DOJ has explicitly asked the Supreme Court to take at least one case and provide a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of Section 3.
The 2010 Census found that 42,000 same-sex couple households resided in states with same-sex marriage. That figure doesn’t even include the thousands more in Maine, Maryland and Washington, the three states that legalized same-sex marriage this month. Thanks to the bottom-up, state-by-state legalization approach that marriage equality proponents have been using, nearly one-fifth of the states now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The more states that join, the higher the number of couples adversely affected by DOMA will be, and the more challenges we will see in the federal courts. Expect the Supreme Court to accept at least one DOMA petition, and expect the arguments to focus not only on equal protection but also on federalism and states’ rights. I’ll be back next time to talk about the Court’s track record on gay rights and the likely concerns of our resident swing vote, Justice Anthony Kennedy.
* In January 2004, the United States General Accounting Office counted 1,138 provisions in federal statutes in which “marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights and privileges.”
Victoria Kwan holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School in New York and has just completed a clerkship with a judge in Anchorage, Alaska. She tweets as @nerdmeetsboy and will continue to post here on legal issues.