Civil Liberties

Supreme Court Strikes Down Defense of Marriage Act, Punts on Prop. 8


In a pair of narrowly divided opinions issued this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government violated the Constitution by refusing to recognizing same-sex marriages that are legally sanctioned by a state while avoiding the larger question of whether the U.S. Constitution protects the right of all same-sex couples to marry nationwide.

Writing for a 5-4 majority in United States v. Windsor that included the Court's liberal justices, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act "violates basic due process and equal protection principles." According to his ruling, the law's "principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal" while DOMA's "principal purpose is to impose inequality."

In the second gay marriage case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a 5-4 majority that included Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan, ruled that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the legal challenge to California's voter initiative banning gay marriage, Proposition 8, because the initiative backers who defended the law in federal court lacked the requisite legal standing before the federal judiciary.

As expected, today's rulings advance the cause of gay rights by striking down a key element of the Defense of Marriage Act while leaving the larger question of gay marriage's constitutionality to be decided in a future case.