WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Concluding two days of intense debate, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled Wednesday it could give a boost to same-sex marriage by striking down the federal law that denies legally married gay spouses a wide range of benefits offered to other couples.
As the court wrapped up its remarkable arguments over gay marriage in America, a majority of the justices indicated they will invalidate part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act — if they can get past procedural problems similar to those that appeared to mark Tuesday’s case over California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Since the federal law was enacted in 1996, nine states and the District of Columbia have made it legal for gays and lesbians to marry. Same-sex unions also were legal in California for nearly five months in 2008 before the Proposition 8 ban.
Justices heard arguments Wednesday in a New York City woman’s case that challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Edith Windsor, 83, sued the federal government after she was forced to pay $363,053 in estate taxes when her partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009 because DOMA didn’t recognize their marriage even though the state of New York did.
Windsor married Spyer in 2007 in Canada after doctors told them that Spyer would not live much longer. She suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. Spyer left everything she had to Windsor.
“In the midst of my grief, I realized the federal government was treating us as strangers,” Windsor told reporters outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
DOMA says marriage may only be a relationship between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law, regardless of state laws that allow same-sex marriage.
It affects a range of benefits available to married couples, including tax breaks, survivor benefits and health insurance for spouses of federal employees.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote in close cases, joined the four more-liberal justices in raising questions Wednesday about a provision that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman for purposes of federal law.
It affects more than 1,100 statutes in which marital status is relevant, dealing with tax breaks for married couples, Social Security survivor benefits and, for federal employees, health insurance and leave to care for spouses.
As CBS 2’s Randall Pinkston reported, some of the more liberal justices said the law appears to create two classes of marriage.
After hearing arguments Wednesday morning, Justice Kennedy said the law appears to intrude on the power of states that have chosen to recognize same-sex marriages. Other justices said the law creates what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called two classes of marriage, full and “skim-milk marriage.”
Kennedy said the Defense of Marriage Act appears to intrude on the power of states that have chosen to recognize same-sex marriages. When so many federal statutes are affected, “which in our society means that the federal government is intertwined with the citizens’ day-to-day life, you are at real risk of running in conflict with what has always been thought to be the essence of the state police power, which is to regulate marriage, divorce, custody,” Kennedy said.
There is no dispute that if Windsor had been married to a man, her estate tax bill would have been zero.
“For anybody who doesn’t understand why we want it and why we need it, it is magic,” Windsor said.