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How the Supreme Court Decided on DOMA
PHOTO: The court is scheduled to hear arguments on whether Congress can withhold federal benefits from legally wed gay couples by defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

The Supreme Court struck down a key section the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) today, a federal law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The court ruled that the law violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5-4 majority wrote DOMA "places same sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, and whose relationship the state has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same sex couples." He was joined by the court's liberals.

The ruling means that same-sex couples who are legally married in their state will no longer be denied federal benefits available to opposite-sex couples.

"Under DOMA same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways."

"By its great reach DOMA touches many aspects of married life from the mundane to the profound," Kennedy said.

Justice Antonin Scalia read his dissent from the bench and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas.

Scalia said the court doesn't have jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place, and furthermore he would have upheld the law as a valid exercise of Congressional power. "There are two parts to the majority's opinion, the first explaining why this Court has jurisdiction to decide the question, and the second deciding it. Both of them are wrong, and the error in both springs from the same diseased root: an exalted notion of the role of this Court in American democratic society."

The case involved a challenge to a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) –a federal law passed in 1996 with wide majorities -- that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. It denies federal benefits to same-sex couples are legally married in their states.

The case was brought by Edie Windsor, an 83-year-old woman from New York who married Thea Clara Spyer in 2007 after some 40 years together as a couple. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was denied—under DOMA—an exemption on federal estate taxes that she had paid on her spouse's estate.

In February 2011, the Obama administration announced that while it would continue to enforce DOMA, it would no longer defend the law. The Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) , led by House Republicans stepped in and named former Solicitor General Paul D. Clement as the lead lawyer for BLAG.

Like the Prop 8 case, there were threshold questions the Justices considered before reaching the merits of the case. The first is whether the Court even has the jurisdiction to hear the case given that the United States government agrees with Windsor that DOMA is unconstitutional. The second involves whether BLAG has the legal right to be in Court.

Only when the court satisfies itself that the case is properly in front of it, will it proceed to the merits of the case.

Although opponents of DOMA believe that the law should be struck down on equal protection grounds, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited federalism concerns.

"The question," Kennedy asked, "is whether or not the federal government…has the authority to regulate marriage." He said there was a "real risk" of the federal law running into conflict with a state's power.

Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer for Windsor, told the Justices, "My client was treated as unmarried."

But Clement argued that one reason the law was passed was for uniformity—so that the federal definition of marriage would be the same throughout the states.

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