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Court Overturns DOMA, Sidesteps Broad Gay Marriage Ruling

The Supreme Court issued rulings on two highly-anticipated cases on gay marriage today. By 5-4, it ruled the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, is unconstitutional.

In a separate ruling, it declined to take on the broader issue of gay marriage. The court decided that supporters of Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that had outlawed same-sex marriages in the California, did not have standingto bring the case to the court.

As part of NPR's coverage of today's ruling, you can read the two rulings, with annotations. And our colleague Liz Halloran looks at what's next for gay married couples.

NPR's Carrie Johnson explains the Prop. 8 ruling: "By a holding of 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority, the Supreme Court rules the petitioners lack standing so the court avoids the underlying issues, remands and wipes away the decision by 9th Circuit Court of appeals, which means for now the lower court ruling invalidating California's Prop. 8 stands."

That means same-sex marriages in California may resume, but the ruling does not have a broader implication across the country.

The Defense of Marriage Act case is simpler. As SCOTUSblog reports, the court struck down the federal law because it denies same-sex couples the "equal liberty" guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages for purposes such as Social Security survivors' benefits, insurance benefits, immigration and tax filing.

Section 3 of the law defines marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife" and a spouse as "a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." That provision had been struck down by eight lower courts before the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in United States v. Windsor settled the matter for good.

This decision means that legally married same-sex couples are now entitled to the same federal benefits as married opposite sex couples.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

In the Prop. 8 case, or Hollingsworth v. Perry, Chief Justice Roberts was joined by Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan. Kennedy filed a dissent, joined by Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor.

SCOTUSblog has this "plain English" explanation of what happened:

"After the two same-sex couples filed their challenge to Proposition 8 in federal court in California, the California government officials who would normally have defended the law in court, declined to do so. So the proponents of Proposition 8 stepped in to defend the law, and the California Supreme Court (in response to a request by the lower court) ruled that they could do so under state law. But today the Supreme Court held that the proponents do not have the legal right to defend the law in court. As a result, it held, the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the intermediate appellate court, has no legal force, and it sent the case back to that court with instructions for it to dismiss the case."

Update at 1:05 p.m. ET. A Triumph For Equal Protection:

In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said the court's decision on DOMA is an "enormous triumph for equal protection under the law for all Americans."

"The Court's ruling gives real meaning to the Constitution's promise of equal protection to all members of our society, regardless of sexual orientation," Holder said. The ruling impacts a "broad array of federal laws," Holder added, saying the Justice Department will begin working to implement it.

Update at 11:52 a.m. ET. 'Discrimination Enshrined In Law':

In a statement, President Obama praised today's Supreme Court decision on DOMA, which he said was "discrimination enshrined in law." He called the ruling invalidating the legislation "a victory for couples who have long fought for equal treatment under the law."

The president added:

"We welcome today's decision, and 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.

"On an issue as sensitive as this, knowing that Americans hold a wide range of views based on deeply held beliefs, maintaining our nation's commitment to religious freedom is also vital. How religious institutions define and consecrate marriage has always been up to those institutions. Nothing about this decision – which applies only to civil marriages — changes that."

Update at 11:40 a.m. ET. Vaughn Walker's Ruling Stands:

NPR member station is live blogging reaction in California to the Prop. 8 ruling. They also do a good job at explaining how we got here: Essentially, KQED explains, the Supreme Court ruled that the 9th Circuit Court should not have ruled on the case.

So they ordered the court to dismiss it, which means the previous ruling, which invalidated the law because it violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, stands. That ruling came in 2010 from U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Judge Vaughn Walker.

As KQED's Scott Shafer reported back in 2011, Walker struck down Prop. 8 and then was involved in some controversy after it was revealed that the judge was in a same-sex relationship.

Update at 11:37 a.m. ET. 'An Exalted Conception':

In his dissent in the DOMA case, Scalia basically argued the people should be allowed to rule themselves. He writes:

"This case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today's opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court's errors on both points spring forth from the same diseases root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution in America."

Update at 11:29 a.m. ET. Equal Protection:

The majority opinion in the DOMA case is worth noting. Korva has been sifting through it and of note is that Justice Kennedy wrote his opinion saying DOMA violates the Constitution's equal protection clause.

He writes quoting Dept. of Agriculture v. Moreno:

"DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. The Constitution's guarantee of equality 'must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot' justify disparate treatment of that group."

Kennedy goes on:

"DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code. The particular case at hand concerns the estate tax, but DOMA is more than a simple determination of what should or should not be allowed as an estate tax refund. Among the over 1,000 statutes and numerous federal regulations that DOMA controls are laws pertaining to Social Security, housing, taxes, criminal sanctions, copyright, and veterans' benefits. DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency.

"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. This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class. The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States."

Update at 11:10 a.m. ET. 'Immense Victory':

Legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin tells CNN that the DOMA case is an "immense victory" for proponents of gay marriage.

On Prop. 8, he said, the court did not go as far as they may have liked.

"The court could have said all 50 states should have gay marriage," Toobin said. They didn't but it "certainly looks like the court may be moving in that direction."

Update at 10:50 a.m. ET. The Law Of The Land:

David Boies, one of the attorneys fighting Prop. 8 in the Supreme Court, said this was a victory.

On the steps of the court, he said in Hollingsworth v. Perry that the court could not get to the merits of the case. But the DOMA case made it clear that the court would agree that banning gay marriage is a violation of the Constitution.

"When that case comes," Boies said, "marriage equality will be the law of the land."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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