What DOMA and Prop. 8 rulings really mean 

While my firm and I were marching (in my case, crutching) in the Pride Parade, Carl T. asked me:

Q: "Tell me simply what the U.S. Supreme Court did last week in its rulings. What is DOMA and what did the court do to 'kill' it? Did it rule gay marriage was legal for everyone?"

A: Many people are confused as to what the court actually did last week. First, there were two decisions: U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry.

Windsor presented the question of whether a same-sex spouse, after the death of her wife, was entitled to the federal estate-tax exemption for surviving spouses. The couple resided in New York, a state that had legalized same-sex marriage. The federal marital estate-tax exemption excludes from taxation "any interest in property which passed from the decedent to [their] surviving spouse." Edith Windsor, who in 2009 had been left her wife's estate, sought the federal estate-tax exemption as a surviving spouse, a $363,053 savings.

The IRS denied her request for a refund under the Defense of Marriage Act, stating Windsor was not a spouse. While DOMA, enacted in 1996, did not outlaw same-sex marriages, it denied federal rights and benefits to same-sex couples. DOMA affected more than 1,000 federal laws by requiring that when interpreting any ruling, act of Congress or regulation, the word "marriage" meant only a union between one man and one woman.

The U.S. District Court in New York found DOMA unconstitutional. The appeals court agreed. President Barack Obama and the Department of Justice decided they would no longer defend DOMA and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives took over the defense of DOMA as an "interested party" that had enacted the law.

The Supreme Court found DOMA unconstitutional, stating it demeaned those persons in lawful same-sex marriages and, in doing so, violated basic due process and equal-protection principles.

The Supreme Court stated that DOMA "tells [same-sex couples] and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition."

As a result of the Windsor case, any lawfully married couple, regardless of gender, may receive the full panoply of federal benefits and tax deductions offered to spouses. If you are married in a state that has legalized same-sex marriage and move to another state that hasn't, you still are entitled to receive benefits.

In Hollingsworth, the Supreme Court was faced with the issue of whether Proposition 8 denied same-sex couples due process and equal protection. After Gavin Newsom, as mayor of San Francisco, courageously issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, state court action proceeded all the way to the California Supreme Court, which held that limiting marriage to same-sex couples was unconstitutional.

Then Prop. 8, bankrolled largely by out-of-state fundamentalists, changed the California Constitution to state that "only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." The Hollingsworth plaintiffs — Kristin Perry and others — wanting to be married, filed suit in federal court to overturn Prop 8. The governor, attorney general, and other state and local officials refused to enforce the law or defend it in court.

The U.S. District Court, after allowing the proponents of Prop. 8 to "intervene" and defend the law, found Prop. 8 unconstitutional. The proponents sought to appeal. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals "certified a question" to the California Supreme Court as to whether the proponents had the legal right to challenge the ruling. The California Supreme Court said yes. The 9th Circuit upheld the district court's ruling of unconstitutionality.

The proponents then sought an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that they didn't have standing. The court held that once Prop. 8 was enacted, they had no "personal stake" in defending Prop. 8 that was distinguishable from every California citizen.

So, the Supreme Court did not find that Prop. 8 was unconstitutional, nor did it hold that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unlawful. It simply ruled that, unlike Congress in Windsor, the proponents didn't have the right to challenge the District Court's ruling.

In short, it punted.

Next week, more on Lyft and Sidecar.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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