On June 26, 2013, in a landmark decision hailed as a great victory for gay rights, the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Windsor, holding that the Federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. In doing so, the Supreme Court did not declare that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Instead, the holding indicates that it is up to the individual states to decide whether such marriages should be allowed.

Facts of the Case

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer met in New York City in 1963 and began a long-term lesbian relationship. In 1993, they registered as domestic partners. In 2007, they traveled to Canada and were married. Under the laws of the state of New York, their marriage was recognized as valid. In 2009, Spyer died, leaving her entire estate to Windsor.

Under the Federal Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress in 1996, “marriage” is limited to “a legal union between one man and one woman” and “spouse” refers “only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Although DOMA did not forbid states from enacting laws permitting same-sex marriages, its definition of “marriage” and “spouse” applied with regard to interpreting all federal laws and regulations, including the federal tax laws.

Because DOMA denied federal recognition of their valid New York marriage, Windsor did not qualify for the marital estate tax exemption and so she owed $363,053 in estate taxes. Windsor paid the tax and then sought a refund based on her marriage. When the IRS denied the refund, she sued, claiming that DOMA was unconstitutional because it violated equal protection.


While the suit was pending, the Obama Administration indicated that it did not intend to defend the constitutionality of DOMA. In response, Congress intervened in the lawsuit to try to uphold DOMA.

The Majority Opinion

In a 5 (Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan) to 4 (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito) decision, the Supreme Court held that DOMA was “unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.”

The Majority began its analysis by explaining that by history and tradition the definition has been treated as being “within the authority and realm of the separate states.” Although certain federal statutes constitutionally regulate the meaning of marriage to further federal policy, DOMA has a far greater reach because it “enacts a directive applicable to over 1,000 federal laws and the whole realm of federal regulations.”

The Majority found that the problem with DOMA was that it used the definitions of “marriage” and “spouse” to impose restrictions and disabilities. The Majority reasoned that DOMA sought to injure the very class that New York sought to protect and, in doing so, it violated basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government.

In his conclusion, Justice Kennedy reasoned:

DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriage less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Nevertheless, in holding that its Opinion only applied to “lawful marriages” as defined by the individual state laws, the Court made it clear that it was not finding that there was a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Rather, that it was up to each state to decide the issue. Currently, Pennsylvania does not permit same-sex marriage.

Tim Rayne is a partner in the full-service law firm of MacElree Harvey, Ltd. which has 29 attorneys in offices located in Kennett Square and West Chester, PA and Centreville, DE. Tim focuses his law practice in Personal Injury and Civil Litigation law, primarily helping people who have been injured in accidents deal with insurance companies. Tim can be reached at 610.840.0124 or trayne@macelree.com. For more News and Information on Personal Injury law, check out Tim’s website at www.timraynelaw.com.