This morning, the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. In a 5-4 opinion, Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, states that "DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution." In the other marriage equality case, also a 5-4 decision (Chief Justice John G. Roberts writing for the majority), the Court ruled that the petitioners in the California Proposition 8 case did not have standing to appeal, which means that the trial court's decision invalidating Proposition 8 stands and California can resume recognition of same-sex marriages.
Q: Who does the DOMA decision affect directly?
A: Everyone in the country who is in a legal same-sex marriage.
The main purpose of DOMA was to prevent the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages that several states have deemed legal. This delegitimatization prevented same-sex spouses from enjoying over 1,000 benefits under federal law that opposite-sex couples get automatically upon legal marriage. With DOMA's demise, legally married same-sex couples will soon have rights to Social Security survivorship, tax status, inheritance, and many other benefits listed in the U.S. Tax Code and other federal laws.
Q: Does the DOMA ruling mean that states where same-sex marriages are illegal must recognize gay unions?
The Supreme Court did not give state same-sex marriage statutes "full faith and credit," which means that the 38 states that do not already recognize same-sex unions don't have to start doing so. The effect of the ruling is that the Court leaves the question of marriage to the individual states. This is in contrast to the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, where the Court ruled that laws banning interracial marriages were unconstitutional nationwide.
Q: Who does the Proposition 8 decision affect directly?
A: Only residents of California.
The Court did not rule on the merits of the case, meaning that it did not discuss whether same-sex marriages should or should not be recognized on the state level. In plain English, the Court dismissed the case on a technicality.
Q: What is "standing?"
A: Standing means the ability to bring a suit before a court.
Proposition 8 (page 49 in this 2008 voter's guide)was a referendum passed in 2008 that forced California to stop performing gay marriages. The law was challenged and repealed at the trial level, but on appeal state officials declined to defend the statute. An interest group called ProtectMarriage.com, which led the initiative to get Proposition 8 on the ballot, filed the appeal in place of the State of California. The Court ruled that this group did not suffer "personal and tangible harm" and thus could not bring an appeal, and therefore returned the case to the trial court, whose ruling striking down Proposition 8 would immediately become effective.
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