Our Pittsburgh Family lawyers bring you huge news today on the family law front. The Supreme Court has issued opinions in two same-sex marriage cases: U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. These two opinions are providing a bolster to the cause of same-sex marriage nationwide. Today’s blog will discuss Windsor.
U.S. v. Windsor, the broader ruling of the two, struck down as Unconstitutional Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which redefined the federal definition of marriage to include only a man and a woman. While a simple definition may seem to be a small matter, the change of that definition had huge effects on thousands of areas governed by Federal law, including taxes, medical rights, and inheritances.
Windsor is the story of a same-sex couple who had met in the ’60’s and lived together for the intervening 50 years. The couple lived in New York, a state which first recognized same-sex marriages performed in other states, and then recently decided to allow same-sex marriage. The couple, concerned about their increasing ages, married in Canada, and moved back to New York where their marriage was recognized as legal. One of the women died, and when her wife inherited her assets, she had to pay estate taxes, because special inheritance rights are only held by married couples. She sued, and the case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court, in a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Kennedy (frequently considered to be the swing vote on the Court), determined that DOMA was a violation of fifth amendment due process rights by not respecting the equality of same-sex marriages performed in the states that accept them. Kennedy’s Opinion emphasized the primary right of the State to determine marriage law, and that the Federal Government in enforcing DOMA is not respecting the primary right of the individual states to decide on who should be allowed to marry in their state. It also criticized DOMA for being excessively anti-gay.
This has huge implications for same-sex couples, because it means that if they live in and are married states in which their marriages are legal, then they are entitled to the same protections, benefits, and rights as heterosexual couples. The Opinion was specifically limited to those states wherein same-sex marriage is already legal, meaning that the DOMA decision would not yet have any effect on gay couples living in Pennsylvania, where same-sex marriage is still statutorily banned.
As it stands right now, it is not clear how much this case may affect Pennsylvania law (because the Court explicitly did not hold that states have to respect same-sex marriages performed in other states), but they represent a large step for same-sex marriage in the United States as a whole, with over 30% of Americans now living in states with same-sex marriage, and now federal recognition of those marriages. We will just have to wait and see how it turns out.
Contact our Allegheny County family attorneys today to discuss your marriage or relationship case.