SCOTUS Rulings on DOMA and Prop 8: What’s Next?
For same-sex American couples, relationship status remains “it’s complicated”
This morning the Supreme Court handed down rulings in two cases that impact the marriage rights of Americans in same-sex relationships. The Windsor case challenged the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on behalf of the surviving spouse of a New York same-sex marriage (SSM), and the Prop 8 case dealt with the anti-SSM ballot initiative California voters passed in 2008 shortly after marriages began there.
While initial headlines blared variations on “SCOTUS Strikes Down DOMA and Prop 8,” it’s important to look at the rulings to understand that while they are good news for some same-sex couples, the states retain the power to make their own decisions about recognizing same-sex marriage. Bottom line: the status of same-sex marriages today depends on where the couple lives. Let’s talk about the cases separately first; then how they interact, and what happens next.
The Windsor Decision
Edie Windsor and her spouse lived in New York state, which recognizes their Canadian marriage. When her spouse died, the Federal government treated the disposition of her estate as if they were two unmarried people, which made Windsor subject to estate taxes on the value of her spouse’s property. In the US v. Windsor ruling, Section 3 of DOMA, which defined marriage exclusively as a union between one man and one woman, was struck down as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. In a nutshell, the Federal government can no longer treat holders of a valid state marriage license differently based on the gender of the partners. If your state permits same-sex couples to marry, the Federal government must extend to you the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as it does to opposite-sex couples. Therefore, when Windsor’s spouse passed away, she should have had the same Federal inheritance and estate tax protections of any widow from a valid marriage.
However, Section 2 of DOMA still stands. This is the section that says a state cannot be forced to recognize marriages performed in other states with different laws about same-sex marriage. Couples who live in states that recognize same-sex marriages will not automatically retain their rights if they relocate to a state that does not. Thus, same-sex couples must continue to weigh the costs and benefits of relocating to another part of the country.
The Prop 8 Ruling
The California Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit Federal court have already ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional, and the state of California accepted these rulings as valid. Proponents of Prop 8 appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn these decisions, and today the Supreme Court ruled that those making the appeal lacked the legal standing to challenge the lower courts’ rulings.
Marriages already performed in California remain valid, and the state of California may now begin to resume issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris have indicated they plan to move forward as quickly as possible.
The Interplay of These Rulings in California
My longtime partner and I married in California in 2008 on the first day same-sex marriage licenses were issued. Before that we were registered domestic partners (DP), a legal status in California that was available before, during and after the period in which SSM was legal. For the past several years, same-sex couples in California, whether married or in a DP, have filed joint state income tax returns. But the Federal government didn’t recognize our marriage, so we file Federal taxes separately as two “single” persons; and since I’m covered on my husband’s employee benefits, he pays Federal income tax on the imputed value of my insurance benefits. And if one of us were to pass away, the other would not be eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits.
The DOMA decision means that my spouse and I will now be able to file joint Federal income tax returns as well as state ones, my spouse will no longer pay Federal taxes on the value of my health insurance, and the tragedy of losing a spouse will no longer be exacerbated by unequal treatment of our estate and Social Security benefits. Hooray!
If we were to relocate to a state that does not permit SSM or recognize such marriages performed elsewhere, some of those Federal benefits may simply disappear. Poof! Current Federal regulations vary across departments in whether they look at your legal status based on where you live, or where your marriage was performed. Here’s a quick explainer courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Attorney General Holder has indicated he will direct the government to review their policies in light of today’s DOMA ruling, so expect more clarity in the coming months about how your relationship will be treated under Federal law.
What Happens Next?
First, all of us, single or married, straight or gay, should continue to press our state governments to legalize same-sex marriage. Today’s decisions do not mean the fight for marriage equality is anywhere close to finished.
Second, regardless of where you live, if you hold a valid same-sex marriage license, you may begin to benefit from at least some Federal marriage benefits. However, your state may still withhold privileges it reserves for opposite-sex couples. It may benefit you to get married in a state that recognizes SSM, regardless of where you live.
Couples where one spouse is a Federal employee or member of the military should see real improvement in their benefits, and bi-national couples may have a greater chance of obtaining legal residency for the non-US citizen.
It’s also important that this is the first Supreme Court ruling that affirms a lower court’s ruling that LGBT people are a protected class, and laws that treat them differently than straights should be subject to intermediate or heightened scrutiny. This places additional burden on local, state and Federal governments if a law discriminating against LGBT persons is challenged.
Stay tuned to see how this plays out.
(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Photo Phiend)
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