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United States v. Windsor

Citation. 570 U.S. 744 (2013)
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Brief Fact Summary.

DOMA, the federal law, did not recognize same sex marriage. Windsor, who was married to Spyer in Ontario and whose marriage was recognized by New York City, sued contending that DOMA violates the guarantee of equal protection, as applied to the Federal Government through the Fifth Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Constitution’s guarantee of equality must mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group. In determining whether a law is motivated by an improper purpose, discrimination of an unusual character require careful consideration.


In 1996, before any State had acted to permit the same sex marriage, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife. The respondents, Windsor and Spyer met in New York City and began a relationship. They registered as domestic partners when NYC gave that right to same-sex couples in 1993. When Spyer died and left her estate to Windsor, Windsor did not qualify for the marital exemption from the federal estate tax because DOMA denied federal recognition to same-sex spouses. Windsor sued.


Does the federal statute that prohibits same sex marriage violate the Constitution?


Yes, because DOMA rejects the long-established precepts that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each state. The State’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case and New York’s actions – recognizing same sex marriage of the respondents– were a proper exercise of its sovereign authority.


Justice Roberts

Roberts: Interests in uniformity and stability justifies Congress’s decision to retain the definition of marriage that had been adopted by every State in our Nation. The majority also failed to sufficiently demonstrate the federal government’s sinister motive in adopting the law or that the law furthers no legitimate government interest.

Scalia: The Constitution does not forbid the federal government to enforce traditional moral and sexual norms. The Constitution neither requires nor forbids our society to approve of same-sex marriage. Even setting aside traditional moral disapproval of same-sex marriage, there are valid justifying rationales for the law at issue. For instance, DOMA prevents difficult choice-of-law issues that will arise absent a uniform federal definition of marriage. Also, it preserves the intended effects of prior legislation against then-unforeseen changes in circumstance.


The States’ interest in defining and regulating the marital relation, subject to constitutional guarantees, stems from the understanding that marriage is more than a routine classification for purposes of certain statutory benefits. Private, consensual sexual intimacy between two adult persons of the same sex may not be punished by the State. DOMA injured the very class New York sought to protect and thus violated basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. The federal statute is invalid, and no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage the individuals whom the State sought to protect.

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