The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] on Thursday struck down [opinion, PDF] Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text]. Section 3 defines "marriage" under federal law as a "legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife" and "spouse" as a "person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the case and the surviving spouse of a same-sex couple, married her partner in Canada in 2007 and was a resident of New York at the time of her spouse's death in 2009. Windsor was denied the benefit of the spousal deduction for federal estate taxes because of DOMA, prompting the legal challenge. After the US District Court for the Southern District of New York [official website] held [JURIST report] that DOMA failed to satisfy rational basis and is thus unconstitutional, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) of the US House of Representatives [official website] appealed the decision to the Second Circuit. Applying a standard of heightened judicial scrutiny, the Second Circuit held that DOMA unconstitutionally violated equal protection:
Homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and the class remains a politically weakened minority. ... DOMA's classification of same-sex spouses was not substantially related to an important government interest. Accordingly, we hold that Section 3 of DOMA violated equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional.The Attorney General from the state of New York welcomed [press release] the decision, calling it a "major step forward in the fight for equality." The US Supreme Court [official website] may take up the issue this term, possibly in Windosor's case. Windsor filed for expedited review [JURIST report] in July.
The decision by the Second Circuit the most recent development in the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage [JURIST backgrounder]. Last week a court in Alabama held [JURIST report] that a state statute that defines marriage as between one man and one woman bars a woman from adopting her female partner's child. Last month, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] petitioned [JURIST report] the US Supreme Court to hear Windsor's case and another challenge to DOMA, arguing that the law unconstitutionally interferes with the right of the states to define marriage. Last year, the Obama administration instructed [press release] the DOJ to stop defending DOMA in court, prompting BLAG to take up the mantle of defending the law [JURIST report]. House Speaker John Boehner [official website] convened a meeting of BLAG and issued a statement [press release] that the constitutionality of the law should be "determined by the courts, not by the president unilaterally."