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DOJ asks Supreme Court to prioritize Windsor’s DOMA challenge

CHRIS JOHNSON | Washington Blade
Saturday, October 27, 2012
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The Obama administration is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to make the case of an 83-year-old New York lesbian who had to pay $363,000 in estate taxes its highest priority among the pending lawsuits challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.

In an 11-page supplemental brief filed on Friday, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli writes that the case of Windsor v. United States — which recently led the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to conclude DOMA is unconstitutional — should take precedence among other pending lawsuits challenging the anti-gay law.

Edith Windsor
Photo: Michael Key, Washington Blade

Previously, the Justice Department has said the consolidated case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services — which was filed respectively by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley — should be the priority because the case once was the only one in which an appeals court ruled against DOMA.

However, that changed after the ruling by the Second Circuit, which became the first appeals court to apply heightened scrutiny — or a greater assumption the law is unconstitutional — in its ruling against DOMA. The application of heightened scrutiny is suggested in the Justice Department as the reason why the Windsor case should take precedence, although it’s not explicitly stated.

“Although Department of Health and Human Services v. Massachusetts… is also a case in which a court of appeals has rendered a decision, this case now provides the most appropriate vehicle for this Court’s resolution of the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA,” the brief states. “In particular, the court of appeals in Massachusetts was constrained by binding circuit precedent as to the applicable level of scrutiny … whereas the court of appeals here was not so constrained, and its analysis may be beneficial to this Court’s consideration of that issue.”

The plaintiff in the case, which was filed by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, is Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay $363,000 in estate taxes in 2009 upon the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer. The two had lived as a couple for 44 years and married in Canada in 2007.

In a statement, Windsor said she’s “pleased” the Justice Department is asking the Supreme Court underscoring the importance of her lawsuit against DOMA.

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