The Second Circuit Court of Appeals is now the second federal appellate court to strike down Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Section 3, reports The Associated Press. Applying “heightened scrutiny,” the Second Circuit concluded that DOMA’s classification of same-sex spouses was not substantially related to an important government interest and held that DOMA Section 3 violates equal protection.
Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs, a George H.W. Bush nominee, wrote the opinion for the divided panel. Senior Judge Chester Straub dissented from the majority holding that DOMA is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee.
The plaintiff in this case, 83-year-old Edie Windsor, spent 44 years with Thea Spyer. The couple became engaged in 1967, and were married in Canada in May 2007. Two years later, Thea passed away, after living for decades with multiple sclerosis.
Under federal tax law, a spouse who dies can leave assets, including the family home, to the other spouse without incurring estate taxes. DOMA Section 3, however, restricts the federal interpretation of marriage to heterosexual couples. Because the federal government did not recognize their marriage, the IRS taxed Windsor’s inheritance from Spyer.
Windsor sued to recover $353,053 in federal estate tax she was not allowed to claim because her marriage was not legally recognized due to DOMA. District Judge Barbara Jones ruled in Windsor’s favor in June, and ordered the government to return the money. Judge Jones concluded that the DOMA conflicts with the states’ rights to regulate marriage, and “such a sweeping federal review in this arena does not square with our federalist system of government.”
The Second Circuit affirmed that decision on Thursday, referring to DOMA as an “unprecedented intrusion into an area of traditional state regulation.”
The heightened scrutiny analysis is one of the most significant aspects of this decision, as the Second Circuit is the first federal appellate court to apply the standard to government discrimination against gay people, according to the ACLU. Judge Jacobs wrote that heightened scrutiny was appropriate because:
- Homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination.
- Homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society.
- Homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages.
- The class remains a politically weakened minority.
In his conclusion for the majority, Judge Jacobs observed, “Our straightforward legal analysis sidesteps the fair point that same-sex marriage is unknown to history and tradition. But law (federal or state) is not concerned with holy matrimony. Government deals with marriage as a civil status — however fundamental — and New York has elected to extend that status to same-sex couples. A state may enforce and dissolve a couple’s marriage, but it cannot sanctify or bless it. For that, the pair must go next door.”
- Windsor v. U.S. (Second Circuit Court of Appeals)
- You’re Up, Second Circuit: NYC Judge Strikes DOMA (FindLaw’s Second Circuit Blog)
- DOMA Verdict is In: Denying Benefits to Same-Sex Couples Unconstitutional (FindLaw’s First Circuit Blog)