Supreme Court justices heard two cases involving same-sex marriage this term. Rulings in both cases were issued Wednesday.
Justices first heard Hollingsworth v. Perry, which questions the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, a voter-passed amendment to the California Constitution that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
The biggest question in this case is whether states can prevent same-sex couples from marrying.
The Proposition 8 dispute has its origins in another voter-passed initiative, Proposition 22, which California voters approved in 2000. That measure also defined marriage as between one man and one woman in California, but because it was an ordinary statute instead of a constitutional amendment, it could be overturned by state courts.
The California Supreme Court rules Proposition 22 was unconstitutional under the California Constitution in 2008. That granted California same-sex couples the right to marry.
A few months later, California voters passed Proposition 8, an amendment that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman – and because that measure did amend the state Constitution, it could only be overturned if courts found it wasn’t compatible with the U.S. Constitution.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found Proposition 8 unconstitutional – in other words, the court found California didn’t have the right to restrict gay couples from marrying. That decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will have the final say.
The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of the Ninth Circuit ruling, ruling the appealing parties did not have the standing to do so. The action essentially allows same-sex marriage to resume in California.
A decision is also expected in United States v. Windsor, which challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
The big question in this case is whether legally-married same-sex couples have the same federal rights as heterosexual married couples, including the ability to file taxes jointly or receive social security benefits if one spouse dies.
President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996. DOMA has two main provisions: Section 2, which says individual states don’t have to recognize same-sex weddings marriages that are legal in other states; and Section 3, which says a person’s spouse is only entitled to federal benefits when the two spouses are of the opposite sex.
The DOMA case before the Supreme Court disputes Section 3. It was brought to the court by Edith Windsor, a New York resident who legally married her longtime partner, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009 and left Windsor her estate, the IRS demanded Windsor pay more than $350,000 in estate taxes because the federal government didn’t recognize their marriage, according to CBS News. An opposite-sex spouse wouldn’t have had to pay taxes on that same inheritance.
In a ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional and struck it down, giving legally-married same-sex couples access to federal benefits.
The Obama administration decided not to defend DOMA. Instead, House Republicans defended the law through a group called the Bipartisan Leadership Advisory Group.
Several high-profile politicians have also announced their support for same-sex marriage recently. Former President Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA into law, now says it’s “incompatible with our Constitution.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Clare McCaskill have also come out in support of gay marriage in recent weeks.
On the Republican side, Sen. Rob Portman made headlines as the first sitting Republican senator to support same-sex marriage. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and Meg Whitman, who supported Proposition 8 when she was running for governor of California, are just a few of the conservatives who signed an amicus brief supporting same-sex marriage ahead of these court cases.
Two Supreme Court justices will be closely watched as potential swing votes on this issue, according to CNN. Justice Anthony Kennedy is generally conservative but is also considered a frequent swing vote. He has written two opinions furthering gay rights, one that struck down state laws criminalizing sodomy and another that stopped a Colorado Constitutional amendment that forbid local gay-rights ordinances.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is considered a liberal justice, but she has also criticized the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortions as moving too quickly for public opinion, suggesting that abortion would have eventually gained more widespread political support without the decision.