Archived Story

Supreme Court strikes down marriage act

Published 11:29am Thursday, June 27, 2013

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, striking down the definition of marriage made explicit in Section 3 of the act.

DOMA was enacted in 1996, defining the terms “marriage” and “spouse” such that “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court, joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

In his opinion, Kennedy cited the Fifth Amendment and Bolling v. Sharpe, asserting that “the Constitution’s guarantee of equality ‘must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify’ disparate treatment of that group.”

Kennedy held that DOMA as written deprives same-sex couples of many rights and benefits afforded to heterosexual couples.

“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways,” Kennedy states. “By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound.”

In closing, Kennedy clarified that the decision does not grant same-sex couples the right to marry in states where local law does not guarantee that right. Instead, the decision only applies to legally married same-sex couples.

“What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” Kennedy said. “This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito all filed dissenting opinions. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s opinion, and Roberts joined part I. Thomas also joined on parts II and III of Alito’s opinion. Roberts contended that the Court lacked the authority to hear the case and maintained the constitutionality of DOMA.

“I agree with Justice Scalia that this court lacks jurisdiction to review the decisions of the courts below,” Roberts stated. “On the merits of the constitutional dispute the Court decides to decide, I also agree with Justice Scalia that Congress acted constitutionally in passing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).”

Roberts attested that the Court may one day be called upon to resolve challenges to state marriage definitions affecting same-sex couples, but as he saw it, this was not the issue at stake.

“I write today only to highlight the limits of the majority’s holding and reasoning today, lest its opinion be taken to resolve not only a question that is not properly before us – DOMA’s constitutionality – but also a question that all agree, and the Court explicitly acknowledges, is not at issue.”

In Scalia’s opinion, he explained that the Court is eager to rule on the central legal question of this case, but said in issuing the opinion, the court misinterpreted and overstepped its role and powers.

“(We the People) gave judges, in Article III, only the ‘judicial power,’ a power to decide not abstract questions but real, concrete ‘cases’ and ‘controversies,’” Scalia said. “(This) envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and everywhere ‘primary’ in its role.”