A federal court in Manhattan has entered a summary judgment in favor of Edith Windsor, a widow assessed an estate tax of $363,053 on her spousal inheritance. This sum was assessed because the federal government, pursuant to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), deems her Canada-solemnized same-sex marriage nonexistent.
This holding is the latest defeat for Congress’s 1996 handiwork. With the request by the Obama administration for certiorari to the First Circuit DOMA holding and to a Ninth Circuit DOMA scheduled for September oral argument, and with Prop 8 litigation potentially headed for high court review, Windsor nicely differentiates among the distinctive issues affecting same-sex marriage.
In Windsor, a brief for intervenors for the U.S. House of Representatives argued that Congress could rationally conclude there is a federal interest in impeding “an unprecedented redefinition of our foundational social institution.” Judge Barbara Jones politely demolished this portentous pronouncement as support for federal law.
The judge demonstrates that all-or-nothing arguments about same-sex marriage conflate separate questions. The intuition that a loud NO! is final masks the need for nuance.
With same-sex marriage, there are several obviously distinctive questions. First, must states affirmatively authorize same-sex marriage by issuing marriage licenses to couples? Second, may the federal government treat as null for federal law a state-created legal status affecting family relations? Third, to what extent are states required to afford recognition to legal statuses created outside the state by sister states? Fourth, what determines whether a state has recognized a given marriage, at a given time? With differing questions, different factors are at work, and they demand multiple answers.