Second Appeals Upholds Lower Court Decision Striking Down DOMA’s Section 3
October 18th, 2012
The Second Court of Appeals in Manhattan has affirmed a lower court’s decision (PDF: 199KB/83 pages) which held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. The case, Windsor v. US. was brought by Edie Windsor, who is being forced to pay an inheritance tax of $363,053 after her legally married wife passed away, a tax that she would not have to pay if she had been married to a man. Last June, Federal District Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled that the tax was unconstitutional when she granted a motion for summary judgment last June.
The Second Court of Appeals’ ruling today is important for two reasons: First, the court find that heightened scrutiny is justified in evaluating DOMA:
Instead, we conclude that review of Section 3 of DOMA requires heightened scrutiny. The Supreme Court uses certain factors to decide whether a new classification qualifies as a quasi-suspect class. They include: A) whether the class has been historically “subjected to discrimination,”; B) whether the class has a defining characteristic that “frequently bears [a] relation to ability to perform or contribute to society,” C) whether the class exhibits “obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group;” and D) whether the class is “a minority or politically powerless.” Immutability and lack of political power are not strictly necessary factors to identify a suspect class. Nevertheless, immutability and political power are indicative, and we consider them here. In this case, all four factors justify heightened scrutiny: A) homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; B) homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; C) homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and D) the class remains a politically weakened minority.
According to the ACLU which brought the case on behalf of Edie Windsor, this is the first federal appeals court ruling to hold that government discrimination against gay people deserves heightened scrutiny. This means that the government must demonstrate that the law serves an important governmental interest in order to justify such discrimination. The bottom line for the court is this:
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.
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.
The court’s ruling was 2-1 (the dissenter was Clinton-appointee Judge Chester Straub), and the second reason this ruling is so important is that Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote the majority opinion. Judge Jacobs is a very conservative judge and a favorite of the Federalist Society. As ThinkProgress notes:
He joined a court decision effectively declaring corporations immune to international human rights law — even when they “trade in or exploit slaves, employ mercenary armies to do dirty work for despots, perform genocides or operate torture prisons for a despot’s political opponents, or engage in piracy.” And he once gave a speech to the conservative Federalist Society decrying the “anti-social effects” of attorneys providing free legal services to the less fortunate.
This is the second Appeals court ruling striking down Section 3 of DOMA. The First Court of Appeals in Boston also “ruled last May against DOMA in two cases involving same-sex couples in Massachusetts. The U.S. Supreme Court may elect to consider all three of these cases sometime after the November election.