In an important decision, New York U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones has determined that the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA) violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Judge Jones is the fourth judge to find Section 3 of DOMA, which defines marriage as limited to “a legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife”, to be unconstitutional and granted summary judgment to Edith Windsor, who sued the government for failing to recognize her 2007 Canadian marriage to Thea Spyer, her partner of forty four years, who died in 2009. Ms. Spyer left all her property to Ms. Windsor, including the apartment they shared. The legal issue arose because since DOMA failed to recognize Ms. Windsor’s same-sex marriage, she was assessed more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes.
After the Obama administration announced that it would no longer defend DOMA, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), led Republicans in authorizing the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives (BLAG) to intervene in the Windsor case and defend the law. On June 6, 2012 Judge Jones denied BLAG’s motion to dismiss and awarded Ms. Windsor $353,000 plus interest. The Court did not go as far as Ms. Windsor’s lawyers sought by declining to rule that homosexuals are an inherent “suspect class” based on a history of discrimination which would have meant they are entitled to strict constitutional scrutiny instead of the less exacting “rational basis” standard of review sought by BLAG. Nonetheless, the decision is one of a growing number of rulings which will, at some future point, spell the doom of DOMA.
Issues such as the above are fast becoming an integral part of family law. If you or a person you know has a question about the legal consequences of same-sex marriages, civil unions, domestic partnerships or living together relationships, advice should be obtained from a qualified attorney before determining how to proceed.