Speaking of Women's Rights: Supreme Court Will Review Marriage Equality Cases in 2013

Monday, December 10, 2012

Supreme Court Will Review Marriage Equality Cases in 2013

by Caitlin Zittkowski

Many Washington residents are still basking in the post-election glow, soaking up the flood of good feelings brought on by the state's recognition of marriage equality through the passage of Referendum 74. However, just one day after the new law took effect on December 6th, with many couples still flocking to local government offices to apply for marriage licenses, a decision from the other side of the country fueled the national focus on LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.

The Supreme Court has announced it will take up two cases regarding marriage for same-sex couples. One case involves federal law, specifically a provision in the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” ("DOMA"), which prohibits the federal government from recognizing marriages of same-sex couples who are legally married under state law. The plaintiff, Ms. Edith Windsor, brought suit after the Internal Revenue Service taxed her hundreds of thousands of dollars when she inherited the property of her deceased wife, Thea Clara Spyer—taxes she would not be required to pay if her spouse had been of the opposite sex.  

In the second case the Supreme Court will review a state law, California's ban on marriage for same-sex couples through Proposition 8. In 2008, Proposition 8 amended the California state constitution to prohibit marriages of same-sex couples. The Supreme Court will review the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision striking down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional.      

Though accepting these cases presents "the possibility that the court could decide all the basic issues surrounding same-sex marriage in one fell swoop," the Supreme Court could also resolve these cases based on much more limited grounds. In fact, it is possible the Court could completely avoid determining the merits of the claims and focus on jurisdictional issues instead.
 The Supreme Court's decision to hear these cases could have been influenced by the "rapid shift in public attitudes" concerning marriage for same-sex couples. Indeed, recent polls show that the majority of Americans support marriage for same-sex couples. Recent changes in state law in places like Washington reflect this trend in public opinion, with the number of states recognizing marriage for same-sex couples jumping from six to nine after this past election.

 Despite society's evolving views on marriage, some equal rights advocates worry that it is too soon to ask the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and have been hesitant to petition the Court for fear of creating harmful precedent. Others are more optimistic, pointing out that both of these cases represent opportunities for progress towards securing equal rights. The Supreme Court is expected to release its decisions on these cases by June 2013.

Caitlin Zittkowski is a third-year law student and had the pleasure of interning with Legal Voice this past semester.