Supreme Court to Hear Two Marriage Equality Cases

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December 10, 2012
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On December 7, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would review legal challenges to California's Proposition 8, which bars gay and lesbian couples from marrying, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition and marriage benefits to same-sex couples.

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Proposition 8 case, the high court will address two essential questions:  does California’s exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution?; and do the backers of Proposition 8 have standing to defend it in court in the first place?

After the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 that the state's existing law banning same-sex marriages violated the state constitution, lesbian and gay couples could legally marry in California. But in November 2008, voters passed Proposition 8 by a narrow margin. The measure amended the the state constitution to limit marriage to between a man and a woman. 

Three same-sex couples filed suit in federal court, saying Proposition 8 violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection and that the right to marriage cannot be limited to heterosexuals.

If the justices rule in favor of the couples in the Hollingsworth case, the ruling could take a number of forms.  The court could overturn every state constitutional provision and law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.  Or it could overturn just Proposition 8, limiting the ruling only to California, as a federal appeals court ruled earlier this year. The Court could also avoid ruling altogether on the constitutional question and find that the backers of the measure have no legal standing to defend it in court, presumably meaning that prior court rulings striking down Proposition 8 would stand.

However, if the court upheld Proposition 8, it would leave open the effort to expand fair marriage laws state by state.  At present, 30 states – including California – have amended their constitutions to exclude same-sex couples from marriage, though California and several others offer those couples comprehensive domestic partnerships or civil unions. 

The high court will also hear the case of Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old widow who inherited the estate of her deceased wife, Thea Spyer. Because the federal government does not recognize Windsor and Spyer's marriage, Windsor was ordered to pay more than $360,000 in estate taxes. Had Windsor been married to a man, she would not have to pay any estate tax.

Recent elections have indicated a sea change in public attitudes towards marriage for same-sex couples. In November, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved ballot measures allowing lesbian and gay couples to wed. Polls this year show 54% of Americans support the freedom to marry.

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