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2nd Circuit rules Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional

by | Oct 18, 2012 | Family Law, LGBTQ Legal Issues |

Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit joined several other federal courts, including the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in holding that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) is unconstitutional.  Specifically, Section 3 states that the word “marriage” means only the legal union between a man and a woman and the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a man or a woman.  Based on these definitions, same-sex spouses of federal employees are denied the same treatment of heterosexual spouses, including the application of federal tax laws and spousal benefits.  Additionally, Section 3 allows States to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed and recognized in other States.

This case initially arose when Edith Schlain Windsor, an 83-year-old woman whose spouse died in 2009 after more than four decades together, filed a lawsuit two years ago challenging a decision by the Internal Revenue Service that she must pay more than $350,000 in estate taxes. Mrs. Windsor and her spouse were married in Canada and their marriage was recognized by the State of New York, where they resided.  A married, heterosexual couple would not have faced the same tax under federal law that Mrs. Windsor faced.  In today’s ruling the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision and held that laws classifying people based on sexual orientation, like DOMA, should be subjected to a heightened form of scrutiny when courts examine the government’s claimed reasons for such laws.  The Circuit Court found that “DOMA’s classification of same-sex spouses was not substantially related to an important government interest. …  Accordingly, we hold that Section 3 of DOMA violates equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional.”

The holding that “intermediate scrutiny” applies makes the Second Circuit the first federal appeals court to do so. The First Circuit did not apply any heightened scrutiny in its earlier decision striking down DOMA.

To read the Second Circuit’s opinion in its entirety, go here.