Federal Judge Strikes Down Portion of DOMA in Estate Tax Case

Yesterday a federal judge ruled that a critical section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutionally discriminates against married same-sex couples. Here’s the opinion.  And here’s the story:

Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer lived as a couple in New York City for 44 years. They were engaged in 1967, a couple of years after becoming a couple, and married in Canada in May, 2007. Thea died two years later.

The IRS did not recognize the marriage and taxed Edie’s inheritance from Thea (which would not happen if they were husband and wife). Ordinarily, whether a couple is “married” for federal tax purposes depends on  whether they are married in the state they reside. The State of New York recognized Edie and Thea’s marriage, but under DOMA, the federal government refuses to treat married same-sex couples the same way as other married couples.

Edie sued under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution… And won, at least at the trial court level.

Section 3 of DOMA codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriage for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors’ benefits, and the filing of joint tax returns.

Edie argued that Section 3 denied her equal protection, because she was gay, married to a woman, but not allowed the same tax treatment she would have if she were married to a man.

The court declined Edie’s invitation to make gays and lesbians a “suspect class” which would have required the court to strike down the law absent compelling circumstances justifying it, which rarely present.  Instead, the court gave it the lowest level of review is “rational review,” which means that if a rational basis for the law is conceivable, the law will be sustained as constitutional, even if it applies unequally.

Under the lowest standard of review, the court still held DOMA’s Section 3 violates the Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.