In a long-awaited decision Dec. 7, the nation’s top court announced that it would take up two marriage-equality cases this term — one filed by Philadelphia native Edie Windsor against the federal Defense of Marriage Act and the long-embattled case of California’s Proposition 8.
Arguments will be heard this spring and decisions will be rendered by June.
Had the court declined to hear the Prop. 8 case, marriage equality would have again been legal in California. However, that the case will be resolved on a national level is welcomed news to LGBT advocates.
“This is the first time the Supreme Court has taken on two cases like this, so that in and of itself is pretty remarkable,” said Equality Pennsylvania executive director Ted Martin.
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin — the co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is sponsoring the Prop. 8 challenge — noted last Friday that “the passage of Proposition 8 caused heartbreak for so many Americans, but today’s announcement gives hope that we will see a landmark Supreme Court ruling for marriage this term.”
He added that HRC is also “confident that the justices will find [DOMA] patently unconstitutional.”
Martin was hesitant to speculate which way the justices may lean in both cases. However, he noted that the court historically favors widening, not restricting, rights.
“The court has always agreed on the side of expanding rights, and it’s my hope that that is something they’ll consider,” he said.
Recent progress made for marriage equality — including the president’s backing and voters approving marriage equality in three states — could also be a factor, he said.
“Even though the court says it doesn’t react to popular culture, they do, they actually do eventually,” Martin said. “So I’m hoping some of the remarkable changes going on will have a way of impacting this.”
Prop. 8 was ruled unconstitutional by a district court in 2010, a finding upheld by an appellate court. The clause of DOMA that defines marriage as between one man and one woman has been struck down by a number of district and appellate courts.
In the Prop. 8 case, the court could take a number of paths — including weighing in on whether gays and lesbians have a right to marry, which would mark a watershed moment in the LGBT-rights movement. Or, the decision could be narrowed to the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage. If the court finds Prop. 8 to be unconstitutional, marriage equality would again be the law of the land in California.
The Windsor case looks at the federal DOMA, passed in 1996, which prevents married same-sex couples from receiving equal federal benefits as married heterosexual couples. Windsor, 83, is a Philadelphia native and current New York resident who was forced to pay more than $360,000 in inheritance taxes after the death of her same-sex spouse, Thea Spyer.
In Windsor’s case, a New York district court and appellate court found DOMA to be unconstitutional.
“When Thea and I met nearly 50 years ago, we never could have dreamed that the story of our life together would be before the Supreme Court as an example of why gay married couples should be treated equally and not like second-class citizens,” Windsor said in a statement last week. “While Thea is no longer alive, I know how proud she would have been to see this day. The truth is, I never expected any less from my country.”
The justices selected Windsor’s DOMA case among eight potential challenges.
The court could uphold or nullify the federal ban, which would pave the way for same-sex married couples to be granted the same federal rights as their heterosexual counterparts.