United States v. Windsor
In the U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor the court allowed a broader definition of the term “spouse” that would allow married same-sex couples the same rights and privileges as married heterosexual couples.
The case forced the Court to review the constitutionality of a portion (Section 3) of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that treats same-sex couples differently by defining marriage as a union of heterosexual couples and disallowed federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
The court’s decision on the Windsor case required them to declare a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is the authority on all questions of legal constitutionality.
The case of United States v. Windsor began when one partner of a legally-married homosexual couple, Edith Windsor and Thea Speyer, passed away. The government, under DOMA, did not recognize the surviving spouse, who sought to invoke the federal income tax exemption when claiming her partner’s estate. She sued the government for infringing her Fifth Amendment right to due process and equal protection under the law.
The U.S. District Court in New York agreed with Windsor that DOMA’s discrimination against same-sex couples was unconstitutional. The federal government, through the Justice Department, declined to defend its policy, perhaps due to the mounting challenges to any discrimination against same sex marriage. Another group, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, stepped up to defend the law.
By striking down federal barriers to recognizing same-sex marriages, the Court allowed same-sex married couples rights to equal treatment in tax laws, Medicaid benefits, survivor benefits, and more.
The same day the court issued its decision on Windsor, it also issued an opinion in favor of the plaintiff in Hollingsworth v. Perry, who was challenging California’s Proposition 8, which essentially opened that state to legalizing same-sex marriages.
The rest of DOMA was struck down following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges the 2015 case that cleared the way for universal federal recognition of same sex marriage.