Following yesterday’s hearing on California’s Proposition 8 (whose decision will likely fall into the hands of swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy), another case is coming through the Supreme Court this morning. The justices are hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996.
The federal law gives an explicitly heterosexual definition of marriage, and excludes married same-sex couples from the benefits allotted to spouses in opposite-sex marriages. This is the part of the law that is being challenged today. If the court rules that these couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as their opposite-sex counterparts, they would start receiving benefits in the places that allow same-sex marriage (i.e. Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia). The roughly 18,000 couples in California who married before same-sex marriage was overturned there in 2008 would also be affected. Such a decision, however, would not force states that don’t already recognize same-sex marriage to do so.
The plaintiff in today’s case is 83-year-old New Yorker Edith Windsor. After living with her partner, Thea Spyer, for over 40 years, and after being legally married in Toronto in 2007, Windsor was forced to pay over $363,000 in estate taxes after Spyer died in 2009, because the federal government did not recognize their marriage. “If Thea was Theo,” she told NPR last week, “I would not have had to pay” the taxes. “It’s heartbreaking,” she continued. “It’s just a terrible injustice, and I don’t expect that from my country. I think it’s a mistake that has to get corrected.”
Arguments began at approximately 10:10 a.m. By 10:51, according to SCOTUSblog, there was not yet a clear indication of whether a majority believes the court has the power to decide the case. Stay tuned for updates as we hear reports from inside the court.
Transcript is out.
Update, 12:21 p.m.
The New York Times reports from inside the court that five of the justices expressed skepticism of the ban on federal benefits to gay and lesbian couples. According to The Times‘s Peter Baker, during the oral argument Justice Kennedy said, “The question is whether or not the federal government under a federalism system has the authority to regulate marriage.” Audio of the arguments is expected to be released around 2 p.m.
Update, 12:04 p.m.
More from SCOTUSblog, telling us, “Final update: #scotus 80% likely to strike down #doma. J Kennedy suggests it violates states’ rights; 4 other Justices see as gay rights.”
Update 11:31 a.m.
SCOTUSblog tweets, “J Kennedy asks two questions doubting #doma validity but nothing decisive and Chief Justice and Kagan have yet to speak.”