The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled in two landmark same-sex marriage [JURIST backgrounder] cases Wednesday. In United States v. Windsor [SCOTUSblog backgrounder], the court ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text; JURIST news archive] is unconstitutional. Under DOMA, couples in same-sex marriages legally recognized by a state were denied federal benefits extended to married couples. Affirming the decision [JURIST report] of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the court ruled that this provision violated Equal Protection. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State. DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
The ruling does not create a constitutional right to same-sex marriage but means that couples in lawfully recognized same-sex marriages may now be entitled to certain federal benefits: “This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.” Kennedy’s opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Antonin Scalia also filed a dissent, which Justice Clarence Thomas joined and which the chief justice joined in part. Justice Samuel Alito also filed a dissenting opinion, joined in part by Thomas. According to Scalia’s dissent, the court lacks jurisdiction to decide the case and also lacks power to overturn the law.
In Hollingsworth v. Perry [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] the court ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 that the petitioners lacked standing to appeal the district court’s order striking down Proposition 8 [text, PDF; JURIST news archive], California’s same-sex marriage ban. When Proposition 8 was initially struck down [JURIST report] in 2010 by the US District Judge Vaughn Walker, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former attorney general and current Governor Jerry Brown [official website], who were originally defendants in the lawsuit, refused to continue defending the measure on appeal [JURIST report]. This left defendant-intervenors Project Marriage [advocacy website] and other groups to defend the law and appeal the ruling. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court found that these groups lack standing to do so:
Federal courts have authority under the Constitution to answer such questions only if necessary to do so in the course of deciding an actual “case” or “controversy.” As used in the Constitution, those words do not include every sort of dispute, but only those “historically viewed as capable of resolution through the judicial process.” … This is an essential limit on our power: It ensures that we act as judges, and do not engage in policymaking properly left to elected representatives.
For there to be such a case or controversy, it is not enough that the party invoking the power of the court have a keen interest in the issue. That party must also have “standing,” which requires, among other things, that it have suffered a concrete and particularized injury. Because we find that petitioners do not have standing, we have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the Ninth Circuit.
The court vacated the judgment [JURIST report] of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The chief justice’s opinion was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Justice Anthony Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy would have found standing because the California Supreme Court has a right to interpret its own laws regarding who may intervene to support voter-approved ballot initiatives—a question it previously resolved [JURIST report] in petitioners’ favor. While the full impact of this decision remains to be seen, it appears likely that Walker’s order will take effect and Proposition 8 will be unenforceable in California.