WASHINGTON — In the second of back-to-back gay marriage cases, the Supreme Court is turning to a constitutional challenge to the law that prevents legally married gay Americans from collecting federal benefits generally available to straight married couples.
A section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act says marriage may only be a relationship between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law, regardless of state laws that allow same-sex marriage.
Lower federal courts have struck down the measure, and now the justices, in nearly two hours of scheduled argument Wednesday, will consider whether to follow suit.
The DOMA argument follows Tuesday’s case over California’s ban on same-sex marriage, a case in which the justices indicated they might avoid a major national ruling on whether America’s gays and lesbians have a right to marry. Even without a significant ruling, the court appeared headed for a resolution that would mean the resumption of gay and lesbian weddings in California.
Marital status is relevant in more than 1,100 federal laws that include estate taxes, Social Security survivor benefits and health benefits for federal employees. Lawsuits around the country have led four federal district courts and two appeals courts to strike down the law’s Section 3, which defines marriage. In 2011, the Obama administration abandoned its defense of the law but continues to enforce it. House Republicans are now defending DOMA in the courts.
Same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. The states are Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington. It also was legal in California for less than five months in 2008.
The justices chose for their review the case of Edith Windsor, 83, of New York, who sued to challenge a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her partner of 44 years died in 2009.
Windsor, who goes by Edie, married Thea Spyer in 2007 in Canada after doctors told them that Spyer would not live much longer. She suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. Spyer left everything she had to Windsor.
There is no dispute that if Windsor had been married to a man, her estate tax bill would have been zero.
The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York agreed with a district judge that the provision of DOMA deprived Windsor of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law.
Like the Proposition 8 case from California, Windsor’s lawsuit could falter on a legal technicality without a definitive ruling from the high court.
The House Republicans, the Obama administration and a lawyer appointed by the court especially to argue the issue were to spend the first 50 minutes Wednesday discussing whether the House Republican leadership can defend the law in court because the administration decided not to, and whether the administration forfeited its right to participate in the case because it changed its position and now argues that the provision is unconstitutional.
If the Supreme Court finds that it does not have the authority to hear the case, Windsor probably would still get her refund because she won in the lower courts. But there would be no definitive decision about the law from the nation’s highest court, and it would remain on the books.
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