Another Federal Court Strikes Down DOMA

A conservative George H. W. Bush nominee on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals authored a strong decision today declaring section 3 of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Earlier this year, a federal district court judge in Connecticut, that one a Bush-43 nominee, also declared the law unconstitutional. So did a unanimous panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The case before the 2nd Circuit was that of Edith Windsor, an octogenarian in New York who lost her wife in 2009; they had been together for forty years. The New York Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Windsor, described her case in a press release this summer:

Windsor and Spyer lived together for more than four decades in Greenwich Village. Despite not being able to marry legally, they were engaged in 1967. In 1977, Spyer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Windsor helped her through her long battle with that disease. They were finally legally married in May 2007.

When Spyer died in 2009, she left all of her property to Windsor. Because they were married, Spyer's estate normally would have passed to Edie as her spouse without any estate tax at all. But because of DOMA, Windsor had to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes. Payment of the federal estate tax by a surviving spouse is one of the most significant adverse impacts of DOMA since the amount owed, as was true in this case, is often quite substantial.

"Edie Windsor, who recently celebrated her 83rd birthday, suffers from a serious heart condition," said Roberta Kaplan, a partner at Paul Weiss and counsel to Windsor. "Because the District Court's ruling in her favor is entitled to an automatic stay of enforcement, Edie cannot yet receive a refund of the unconstitutional estate tax that she was forced to pay simply for being gay. The constitutional injury inflicted on Edie should be remedied within her lifetime."

The 2nd Circuit opinion leaves no ambiguity as to the discriminatory harm done by section 3 of DOMA. Ian Millhiser at Think Progress pulls out this paragraph of the decision:

[W]e conclude that review of Section 3 of DOMA requires heightened scrutiny. The Supreme Court uses certain factors to decide whether a new classification qualifies as a quasi-suspect class. They include: A) whether the class has been historically “subjected to discrimination,”; B) whether the class has a defining characteristic that “frequently bears [a] relation to ability to perform or contribute to society,” C) whether the class exhibits “obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group;” and D) whether the class is “a minority or politically powerless.” Immutability and lack of political power are not strictly necessary factors to identify a suspect class. Nevertheless, immutability and political power are indicative, and we consider them here. In this case, all four factors justify heightened scrutiny: A) homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; B) homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; C) homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and D) the class remains a politically weakened minority.

That’s an unambiguous indictment of DOMA and of all laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, House Speaker John Boehner, who has now spent $1.5 million taxpayer dollars in an attempt to defend DOMA, is likely to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. But the easier option, as PFAW president Michael Keegan points out in a statement today, would be for Congress just to repeal DOMA. It’s done enough harm to millions of people like Edie Windsor, and its effects will become clearer as more and more gay and lesbian couples are allowed to marry, and find that their marriages aren’t recognized by the federal government.

PFAW