The case is based on the experiences of Edie Windsor, who had been in a same-sex relationship with Thea Spyer living together as a couple for over 40 years and subsequent marriage in 2007. The marriage lasted for two years only as Spyer died in 2009 after living with multiple sclerosis that led continued paralysis. When Edie inherited from Spyer but the Federal Government taxed the inheritance signaling a refusal to identify the two as married couples. The federal tax law provides for a spouse to inherit assets from the deceased spouse without having to pay estate taxes. The decision to tax the inheritance was contrary to the traditional practice where the legality of a couple’s marriage is determined at a federal level based on whether such marriage is supported by their state. The New York state where the couple resided recognized the marriage between Edie and Spyer. However, the tax obligations were imposed based on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that has led to the refusal by the federal government to treat same-sex couples as it does other married couples.
Weiss, Wharton, Paul Rifkind and Garrison working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as representatives of Windsor filed the first court case in the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The ruling on the case was made on June 6, 2012, by Judge Barbara Jones, who determined that section three the DOMA was in violation of Windsor’s rights of equal protection guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. The court also reaffirmed that the marriage between Spyer and Windsor was recognized under New York law at the time of Spyer’s death.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeal also ruled on the case upholding the decisions of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of new York. The Second Circuit presented its opinion on 18 October 2012 nullifying the DOMA in the Windsor v. United States case. According to the court, discrimination against gays and lesbians was unconstitutional, and the government ought to have substantive reasons for such discrimination. The Supreme Court also found section three of the DOMA unconstitutional since it led to the different treatment of relationships thereby violating the principles of Equal Protection.
When the United States v. Windsor case reached the Supreme Court there were several questions presented for interpretation. The first question was whether the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear the case. Secondly, whether Section three of the DOMA was in contravention of the principles of equal protection as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. Thirdly, the parties were supposed to present on the question of whether the agreement demonstrated between the government and the decision arrived at the Second Circuit case meant there was no real dispute requiring further ruling. Lastly, the parties were to present on whether BLAG had the legal right seek an independent appeal if the government was not a valid petitioner in the case.
The court first ruled on the question of its jurisdiction with all the parties agreeing that the Supreme Court was within its legal rights to hear the case. On whether the parties had the interest to appeal to the Supreme Court, it was also ruled that the parties were within their legal standing. Having decided on the jurisdiction and of the court and participation of the parties, the court then focused on whether the DOMA violated the rights of gay and lesbians. The court decided that treatment of marriages recognized under state laws differently, meant the federal government through DOMA was in violation of the principles of Equal Protection assured by the Fifth Amendment.
The reason to support the jurisdiction of the court was that the United States government had refused to honor the ruling of the lower court to award tax refund. Further, the BLAG had raised constitutional issues when seeking to defend section three of the DOMA based on the substantial adversarial argument.
When deciding on the protection of marriage, the court noted it was traditionally the role of states to define and regulate marriage. According to the court, DOMA was negatively affecting a class of citizens that New York State recognized and protected by granting them the legal right marry. By treating certain marriages recognized by states differently, DOMA was demeaning the couples it discriminates. Further, DOMA was violating due process and the principle of equal protection through its interference with the esteem of same-sex marriage. Consequently, DOMA was retrogressive since it was propagating separate status, disadvantage and stigmatization of couples in same-sex marriage.
Among the nine judges, four had a dissenting opinion based on their arguments on the jurisdiction of the court and the merits of DOMA. Chief Justice Roberts argued that the court did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that President Clinton, Representatives, and Senators who passed DOMA desired to harm others. Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and the Chief Justice were of the opinion that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal since the government had already agreed on the unconstitutionality of Section three of DOMA. While dissenting Justice Alito joined in part by Justice Thomas argued that, there was no guarantee for same-sex marriage in the constitution.