Commonly known as DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act was partly overturned by the Supreme Court on June 26, 2013.DOMA was originally enacted in 1996 under President Clinton. One component of the statute permits states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states. President Clinton, later in 2009, admitted that he supported same-sex marriage but ultimately did not feel it was a federal issue. The other part of the statute defines marriage, for federal purposes, as between one man and one woman, effectively precluding married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits. It was this federal definition (“Section 3”) that the Supreme Court struck down.
In 2011, the Obama administration proclaimed that although it is their belief that the Section 3 is unconstitutional, they would continue to enforce the bill but refused to defend it in court. Prior to the historic Supreme Court ruling, Section 3 was struck down as unconstitutional in the Court of Appeals for eight federal circuits.
The case that made it to the Supreme Court which ultimately led to its overturning is United States v. Windsor. The case followed Edith Windsor who had married her spouse Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007. The couple moved to New York and New York state recognized their same-sex marriage. When Thea died, she left her entire estate to Spyer. Historically, when a spouse dies in the US, the spouse, and only the spouse, will be exempt from federal estate taxes; if the estate is left to anyone but a spouse then the limit is $3.2 million dollars before estate taxes apply. In Edith’s case, the IRS did not recognize Edith as a legitimate spouse under DOMA leaving Edith with an estate tax bill totaling over $300k.
Windsor proceeded to sue for a refund of the money she did eventually pay. The grounds were that such a tax under DOMA’s non-recognition was a violation of her Fifth Amendment right of equal protection. The two federal courts ruled in favor of Edith and the case made it to the Supreme Court; oral arguments were heard in March 2013. The court found Section 3 unconstitutional as “a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment”.
Governor Scott and Senator Marco Rubio disagreed with the SCOTUS decision but identified that it won’t affect Florida ban. The Florida state ban on gay marriage was introduced in 2008. The Florida ban would need to be repealed by either an act of legislature, which is slow and the bill was introduced based voted on by the citizens of Florida (62%), or by a petition requiring nearly 700,000 signatures. Equality Florida, a gay-rights group, announced it will campaign in 2014 for a bill to challenge the Florida ban.
Although the focus is on same-sex marriage, an interesting effect of this case is same-sex divorce. Historically, upon a divorce, ex-spouses could transfer unlimited money between them in settling property distribution. Same-sex couples now can settle divorces without imposing large tax fees. Additionally, federal gift taxes would not apply to same-sex spouses.
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