United States V. Windsor
Case Analysis Format
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Case 5-6 United States v. Windsor
United States Supreme Court 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013)
Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were legally married in Canada, and moved to New York, which recognizes same sex marriage. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her entire estate to Windsor, who sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, but was barred from doing so by § 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which amended the federal law that provides rules of construction for over 1,000 federal laws and all federal regulations—to define “marriage” and “spouse” as excluding same-sex partners. Windsor paid $363,053 in estate taxes and applied for a refund. When the Internal Revenue Service refused to give her the refund, Windsor filed suit, arguing that DOMA violates the principles of equal protection incorporated in the Fifth Amendment.
The District Court found that DOMA unconstitutionally violated principles of due process and equal protection enshrined in the Constitution. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, saying the courts should apply strict scrutiny to classifications based on sexual orientation. (In an unrelated case, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit also found § 3 of DOMA unconstitutional.) The United States then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
. . . [S]ome States concluded that same-sex marriage ought to be given recognition and validity in the law for those same-sex couples who wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other. The limitation of lawful marriage to heterosexual couples, which for centuries had been deemed both necessary and fundamental, came to be seen in New York and certain other States as an unjust exclusion.
Against this background of lawful same-sex marriage in some States, the design, purpose, and effect of DOMA should be considered as the beginning point in deciding whether it is valid under the Constitution. By history and tradition the definition and regulation of marriage, . . . has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States. Yet it is further established that Congress, in enacting discrete statutes, can make determinations that bear on marital rights and privileges. . . . Congress has the power both to ensure efficiency in the administration of its programs and to choose what larger goals and policies to pursue.
Though these discrete examples establish the constitutionality of limited federal laws that regulate the meaning of marriage in order to further federal policy, DOMA has a far greater reach; for it enacts a directive applicable to over 1,000 federal statutes and the whole realm of federal regulations. And its operation is directed to a class of persons that the laws of New York, and of 11 other States, have sought to protect. . . .
In order to assess the validity of that intervention it is necessary to discuss the extent of the state power and authority over marriage as a matter of history and tradition. . . . State laws defining and regulating marriage, of course, must respect the constitutional rights of persons, . . . but, subject to those guarantees, “regulation of domestic relations” is “an area that has long been regarded as a virtually exclusive province of the States.”
. . . DOMA rejects the long-established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State, though they may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next. . . . Here the State’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. When the State used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in this way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community. . . .
The Federal Government uses this state-defined class for the opposite purpose—to impose restrictions and disabilities. That result requires this Court now to address whether the resulting injury and indignity is a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment. What the State of New York treats as alike the federal law deems unlike by a law designed to injure the same class the State seeks to protect.
In acting first to recognize and then to allow same-sex marriages, New York was responding “to the initiative of those who [sought] a voice in shaping the destiny of their own times.” . . . These actions were without doubt a proper exercise of its sovereign authority within our federal system, all in the way that the Framers of the Constitution intended. The dynamics of state government in the federal system are to allow the formation of consensus respecting the way the members of a discrete community treat each other in their daily contact and constant interaction with each other.
The States’ interest in defining and regulating the marital relation, subject to constitutional guarantees, stems from the understanding that marriage is more than a routine classification for purposes of certain statutory benefits. Private, consensual sexual intimacy between two adult persons of the same sex may not be punished by the State, and it can form “but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring.” By its recognition of the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions and then by authorizing same-sex unions and same-sex marriages, New York sought to give further protection and dignity to that bond. For same-sex couples who wished to be married, the State acted to give their lawful conduct a lawful status. This status is a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages. It reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.
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. . . . In determining whether a law is motived by an improper animus or purpose, “‘[d]iscriminations of an unusual character’” especially require careful consideration. . . . DOMA cannot survive under these principles. The responsibility of the States for the regulation of domestic relations is an important indicator of the substantial societal impact the State’s classifications have in the daily lives and customs of its people. 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.
The history of DOMA’s enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, a dignity conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was its essence. . . .
As the title and dynamics of the bill indicate, its purpose is to discourage enactment of state same-sex marriage laws and to restrict the freedom and choice of couples married under those laws if they are enacted. The congressional goal was “to put a thumb on the scales and influence a state’s decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws.” . . . The Act’s demonstrated purpose is to ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law. This raises a most serious question under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
DOMA’s operation in practice confirms this purpose. When New York adopted a law to permit same-sex marriage, it sought to eliminate inequality; but DOMA frustrates that objective through a system-wide enactment with no identified connection to any particular area of federal law. 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. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And DOMA contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities. By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.
Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways. By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound. It prevents same-sex married couples from obtaining government healthcare benefits they would otherwise receive. It deprives them of the Bankruptcy Code’s special protections for domestic-support obligations. It forces them to follow a complicated procedure to file their state and federal taxes jointly. It prohibits them from being buried together in veterans’ cemeteries.
The power the Constitution grants it also restrains. And though Congress has great authority to design laws to fit its own conception of sound national policy, it cannot deny the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage. This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.
The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws. . . . While the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from Government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does, the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes that Fifth Amendment right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.
The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State. DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. 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. 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. *
* United States v. Windsor, Supreme Court of the United States, 133.S. Ct. 2675.
Affirmed, in favor of Respondents.
The complete ramifications of this holding were not immediately clear at the time of the decision. Twelve states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriage at that time, and employers at that time were scrambling to find out what their obligations would be under the new law. Over 1,000 federal regulations are affected by the ruling, many of those directly or indirectly affecting employers. Employers in states recognizing same-sex marriage were being forced to look carefully for policy changes they would need to make in three areas: health benefits, retirement plans, and family and medical leave policies. For example, the Family Medical Leave Act (discussed in greater detail in Chapter 19 ), now covers same-sex marriage partners, whereas before it did not. There are also benefits from this ruling for many employers.
In 2015, however, the impact of this decision became even more extensive, as the recognition of same-sex marriages spread from those 12 states and the District of Columbia to every state in the Union, as the result of the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell et al. v. Hodges et al. 52 In that case, the high court held that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State. 53
52 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).
The Fifth Amendment further provides that if the government takes private property for public use, it must pay the owner just compensation. This provision is referred to as the Takings Clause . Unlike the protection against self-incrimination, which does not apply to corporations, both the Due Process Clause and the provision for just compensation are applicable to corporations. This provision for just compensation has been the basis of considerable litigation. One significant issue that has arisen is the question of what constitutes a “public use” for which the government can take property. This issue is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 13 .
Provides that if the government takes private property for public use, it must pay the owner just compensation; found in the Fifth Amendment.
A second issue under this takings provision is the question of when a government regulation can become so onerous as to constitute a taking for which just compensation is required. These takings, which do not involve a physical taking of the property, are called regulatory takings. Environmental regulations, because they often have an impact on the way landowners may use their property, have been increasingly challenged as unconstitutional regulatory takings.
Perhaps one of the most important takings cases was Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Commission, 54 which was decided in 1992. The case arose out of a dispute between a beachfront property owner and the state of South Carolina, after the state passed a regulation prohibiting permanent construction on any eroding beach. Lucas had bought two beachfront lots for $975,000 a few years before the law was passed, and planned to build a couple of condominiums on the land. He challenged the law as constituting an unlawful taking because it prohibited him from building the condominiums or really doing anything with the property. The state court agreed with Lucas that the regulation denied him the economic value of his land and thus constituted an unconstitutional taking without compensation. It ordered the state to pay him $1.2 million in compensation. The South Carolina Supreme Court, however, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedents, overturned the lower court’s decision.