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United States v. Windsor
U.S. Supreme Court
570 U.S. 744
June 26, 2013
JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.
[¶ 1] Two women then resident in New York were married in a lawful ceremony in Ontario, Canada, in 2007. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer returned to their home in New York City. When Spyer died in 2009, she left her entire estate to Windsor. Windsor sought to claim the estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. She was barred from doing so, however, by a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which excludes a same-sex partner from the definition of “spouse” as that term is used in federal statutes. Windsor paid the taxes but filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of this provision. The United States District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled that this portion of the statute is unconstitutional and ordered the United States to pay Windsor a refund. This Court granted certiorari and now affirms the judgment in Windsor’s favor.
[¶ 2] In 1996, as some States were beginning to consider the concept of same-sex marriage, see, e.g., Baehr v. Lewin, 74 Haw. 530 (1993), and before any State had acted to permit it, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA contains two operative sections: Section 2, which has not been challenged here, allows States to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other States.
[¶ 3] Section 3 is at issue here. It amends the Dictionary Act of the United States Code to provide a federal definition of “marriage” and “spouse.” Section 3 of DOMA provides as follows:
[¶ 4] In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word “marriage” means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.
[¶ 5] The definitional provision does not by its terms forbid States from enacting laws permitting same-sex marriages or civil unions or providing state benefits to residents in that status. The enactment’s comprehensive definition of marriage for purposes of all federal statutes and other regulations or directives covered by its terms, however, does control over 1,000 federal laws in which marital or spousal status is addressed as a matter of federal law.
[¶ 6] Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer met in New York City in1963 and began a long-term relationship. Windsor and Spyer registered as domestic partners when New York City gave that right to same-sex couples in 1993. Concerned about Spyer’s health, the couple made the 2007 trip to Canada for their marriage, but they continued to reside in New York City. The State of New York deems their Ontario marriage to be a valid one.
[¶ 7] Spyer died in February 2009, and left her entire estate to Windsor. Because DOMA denies federal recognition to same-sex spouses, Windsor did not qualify for the marital exemption from the federal estate tax, which excludes from taxation “any interest in property which passes or has passed from the decedent to his surviving spouse.” Windsor paid $363,053 in estate taxes and sought a refund. The Internal Revenue Service denied the refund, concluding that, under DOMA, Windsor was not a “surviving spouse.” Windsor commenced this refund suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She contended that DOMA violates the guarantee of equal protection, as applied to the Federal Government through the Fifth Amendment.
[¶ 8] While the tax refund suit was pending, the Attorney General of the United States notified the Speaker of the House of Representatives that the Department of Justice would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA’s Section 3. Noting that “the Department has previously defended DOMA against . . . challenges involving legally married same-sex couples,” the Attorney General informed Congress that “the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a heightened standard of scrutiny.” The Department of Justice has submitted many [such] letters over the years refusing to defend laws it deems unconstitutional, when, for instance, a federal court has rejected the Government’s defense of a statute and has issued a judgment against it. This case is unusual, however, because the [DOJ] letter was not preceded by an adverse judgment. The letter instead reflected the Executive’s own conclusion, relying on a definition still being debated and considered in the courts, that heightened equal protection scrutiny should apply to laws that classify on the basis of sexual orientation.
[¶ 9] Although “the President . . . instructed the Department not to defend the statute in Windsor,” he also decided “that Section 3 will continue to be enforced by the Executive Branch” and that the United States had an “interest in providing Congress a full and fair opportunity to participate in the litigation of those cases.” The stated rationale for this dual-track procedure (determination of unconstitutionality coupled with ongoing enforcement) was to “recogniz[e] the judiciary as the final arbiter of the constitutional claims raised.”
[¶ 10] In response to the notice from the Attorney General, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) of the House of Representatives voted to intervene in the litigation to defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA. The Department of Justice did not oppose limited intervention by BLAG. The District Court denied BLAG’s motion to enter the suit as of right, on the rationale that the United States already was represented by the Department of Justice. The District Court, however, did grant intervention by BLAG as an interested party.
[¶ 11] On the merits of the tax refund suit, the District Court ruled against the United States. It held that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional and ordered the Treasury to refund the tax with interest. Both the Justice Department and BLAG filed notices of appeal, and the Solicitor General filed a petition for certiorari before judgment. Before this Court acted on the petition, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s judgment. It applied heightened scrutiny to classifications based on sexual orientation, as both the Department and Windsor had urged. The United States has not complied with the judgment. Windsor has not received her refund, and the Executive Branch continues to enforce Section 3 of DOMA.
[¶ 12] When at first Windsor and Spyer longed to marry, neither New York nor any other State granted them that right. After waiting some years, in 2007 they traveled to Ontario to be married there. It seems fair to conclude that, until recent years, many citizens had not even considered the possibility that two persons of the same sex might aspire to occupy the same status and dignity as that of a man and woman in lawful marriage. For marriage between a man and a woman no doubt had been thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of that term and to its role and function throughout the history of civilization. That belief, for many who long have held it, became even more urgent, more cherished when challenged. For others, however, came the beginnings of a new perspective, a new insight. Accordingly some States concluded that same-sex marriage ought to be given recognition and validity in the law for those same-sex couples who wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other. The limitation of lawful marriage to heterosexual couples, which for centuries had been deemed both necessary and fundamental, came to be seen in New York and certain other States as an unjust exclusion.
[¶ 13] Slowly at first and then in rapid course, the laws of New York came to acknowledge the urgency of this issue for same-sex couples who wanted to affirm their commitment to one another before their children, their family, their friends, and their community. And so New York recognized same-sex marriages performed elsewhere; and then it later amended its own marriage laws to permit same-sex marriage. New York, in common with, as of this writing, 11 other States and the District of Columbia, decided that same-sex couples should have the right to marry and so live with pride in themselves and their union and in a status of equality with all other married persons. After a statewide deliberative process that enabled its citizens to discuss and weigh arguments for and against same-sex marriage, New York acted to enlarge the definition of marriage to correct what its citizens and elected representatives perceived to be an injustice that they had not earlier known or understood.
[¶ 14] Against this background of lawful same-sex marriagein some States, the design, purpose, and effect of DOMA should be considered as the beginning point in deciding whether it is valid under the Constitution. By history and tradition the definition and regulation of marriage, as will be discussed in more detail, has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States. Yet it is further established that Congress, in enacting discrete statutes, can make determinations that bear on marital rights and privileges. Just this Term the Court upheld the authority of the Congress to pre-empt state laws, allowing a former spouse to retain life insurance proceeds under a federal program that gave her priority, because of formal beneficiary designation rules, over the wife by a second marriage who survived the husband. Hillman v. Maretta, 569 U.S. ___ (2013); see also Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 U.S. 46 (1981); Wissner v. Wissner, 338 U.S. 655 (1950). This is one example of the general principle that when the Federal Government acts in the exercise of its own proper authority, it has a wide choice of the mechanisms and means to adopt. See McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 421 (1819). Congress has the power both to ensure efficiency in the administration of its programs and to choose what larger goals and policies to pursue.
[¶ 15] Other precedents involving congressional statutes which affect marriages and family status further illustrate this point. In addressing the interaction of state domestic relations and federal immigration law Congress determined that marriages “entered into for the purpose of procuring an alien’s admission [to the United States] as an immigrant” will not qualify the noncitizen for that status, even if the noncitizen’s marriage is valid and proper for state-law purposes. And in establishing income-based criteria for Social Security benefits, Congress decided that although state law would determine in general who qualifies as an applicant’s spouse, common-law marriages also should be recognized, regardless of any particular State’s view on these relationships.
[¶ 16] Though these discrete examples establish the constitutionality of limited federal laws that regulate the meaning of marriage in order to further federal policy, DOMA has a far greater reach; for it enacts a directive applicable to over 1,000 federal statutes and the whole realm of federal regulations. And its operation is directed to a class of persons that the laws of New York, and of 11 other States, have sought to protect.
[¶ 17] In order to assess the validity of that intervention it is necessary to discuss the extent of the state power and authority over marriage as a matter of history and tradition. State laws defining and regulating marriage, of course, must respect the constitutional rights of persons, see, e.g., Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967); but, subject to those guarantees, “regulation of domestic relations” is “an area that has long been regarded as a virtually exclusive province of the States.” Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 404 (1975).
[¶ 18] The recognition of civil marriages is central to state domestic relations law applicable to its residents and citizens. See Williams v. North Carolina, 317 U.S. 287, 298 (1942) (“Each state as a sovereign has a rightful and legitimate concern in the marital status of persons domiciled within its borders”). The definition of marriage is the foundation of the State’s broader authority to regulate the subject of domestic relations with respect to the “[p]rotection of offspring, property interests, and the enforcement of marital responsibilities.” Williams, supra. “[T]he states, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, possessed full power over the subject of marriage and divorce . . . [and] the Constitution delegated no authority to the Government of the United States on the subject of marriage and divorce.” Haddock v. Haddock, 201 U.S. 562, 575 (1906); see also In re Burrus, 136 U.S. 586, 593-594 (1890) (“The whole subject of the domestic relations of husband and wife, parent and child, belongs to the laws of the States and not to the laws of the United States”).
[¶ 19] Consistent with this allocation of authority, the Federal Government, through our history, has deferred to state law policy decisions with respect to domestic relations. In De Sylva v. Ballentine, 351 U.S. 570 (1956), for example, the Court held that, “[t]o decide who is the widow or widower of a deceased author, or who are his executors or next of kin,” under the Copyright Act “requires a reference to the law of the State which created those legal relationships” because “there is no federal law of domestic relations.” In order to respect this principle, the federal courts, as a general rule, do not adjudicate issues of marital status even when there might otherwise be a basis for federal jurisdiction. See Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992). Federal courts will not hear divorce and custody cases even if they arise in diversity because of “the virtually exclusive primacy . . . of the States in the regulation of domestic relations.”
[¶ 20] The significance of state responsibilities for the definition and regulation of marriage dates to the Nation’s beginning; for “when the Constitution was adopted the common understanding was that the domestic relations of husband and wife and parent and child were matters reserved to the States.” Ohio ex rel. Popovici v. Agler, 280 U.S. 379, 383-384 (1930). Marriage laws vary in some respects from State to State. For example, the required minimum age is 16 in Vermont, but only 13 in New Hampshire. Likewise the permissible degree of consanguinity can vary (most States permit first cousins to marry, but a handful -- such as Iowa and Washington -- prohibit the practice). But these rules are in every event consistent within each State.
[¶ 21] Against this background DOMA rejects the long established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State, though they may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next. Despite these considerations, it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance. The State’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case quite apart from principles of federalism. Here the State’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. When the State used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in this way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community. DOMA, because of its reach and extent, departs from this history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage. “‘[D]iscriminations of an unusual character especially suggest careful consideration to determine whether they are obnoxious to the constitutional provision.’” Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 633 (1996) (quoting Louisville Gas & Elec. Co. v. Coleman, 277 U.S. 32, 37–38 (1928)).
[¶ 22] The Federal Government uses this state-defined class for the opposite purpose -- to impose restrictions and disabilities. That result requires this Court now to address whether the resulting injury and indignity are a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment. What the State of New York treats as alike the federal law deems unlike by a law designed to injure the same class the State seeks to protect.
[¶ 23] In acting first to recognize and then to allow same-sex marriages, New York was responding “to the initiative of those who [sought] a voice in shaping the destiny of their own times.” Bond v. United States, 564 U.S. ___, ___ (2011). These actions were without doubt a proper exercise of its sovereign authority within our federal system, all in the way that the Framers of the Constitution intended. The dynamics of state government in the federal system are to allow the formation of consensus respecting the way the members of a discrete community treat each other in their daily contact and constant interaction with each other.
[¶ 24] 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, and it can form “but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring.” Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 567 (2003). By its recognition of the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions and then by authorizing same-sex unions and same-sex marriages, New York sought to give further protection and dignity to that bond. For same-sex couples who wished to be married, the State acted to give their lawful conduct a lawful status. This status is a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages. It reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.
[¶ 25] DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. See U.S. Constitution, Amendment 5; Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954). The Constitution’s guarantee of equality “must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot” justify disparate treatment of that group. Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528, 534–535 (1973). In determining whether a law is motived by an improper animus or purpose, “‘[d]iscriminations of an unusual character’” especially require careful consideration. Romer, at 633). DOMA cannot survive under these principles. The responsibility of the States for the regulation of domestic relations is an important indicator of the substantial societal impact the State’s classifications have in the daily lives and customs of its people. DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages. This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class. The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.
[¶ 26] The history of DOMA’s enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, a dignity conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was its essence. The House Report announced its conclusion that “it is both appropriate and necessary for Congress to do what it can to defend the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage. . . . H. R. 3396 is appropriately entitled the ‘Defense of Marriage Act.’ The effort to redefine ‘marriage’ to extend to homosexual couples is a truly radical proposal that would fundamentally alter the institution of marriage.” The House concluded that DOMA expresses “both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.” The stated purpose of the law was to promote an “interest in protecting the traditional moral teachings reflected in heterosexual-only marriage laws.” Were there any doubt of this far-reaching purpose, the title of the Act confirms it: The Defense of Marriage.
[¶ 27] The arguments put forward by BLAG are just as candid about the congressional purpose to influence or interfere with state sovereign choices about who may be married. As the title and dynamics of the bill indicate, its purpose is to discourage enactment of state same-sex marriage laws and to restrict the freedom and choice of couples married under those laws if they are enacted. The congressional goal was “to put a thumb on the scales and influence a state’s decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws.” Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 682 F. 3d 1, 12–13. The Act’s demonstrated purpose is to ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law. This raises a most serious question under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
[¶ 28] DOMA’s operation in practice confirms this purpose. When New York adopted a law to permit same-sex marriage, it sought to eliminate inequality; but DOMA frustrates that objective through a system-wide enactment with no identified connection to any particular area of federal law. DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code. The particular case at hand concerns the estate tax, but DOMA is more than a simple determination of what should or should not be allowed as an estate tax refund. Among the over 1,000 statutes and numerous federal regulations that DOMA controls are laws pertaining to Social Security, housing, taxes, criminal sanctions, copyright, and veterans’ benefits.
[¶ 29] DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And DOMA contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities. By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This 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, see Lawrence, 539 U.S. 558, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.
[¶ 30] 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 and family life, from the mundane to the profound. It prevents same-sex married couples from obtaining government healthcare benefits they would otherwise receive. It deprives them of the Bankruptcy Code’s special protections for domestic-support obligations. It forces them to follow a complicated procedure to file their state and federal taxes jointly. It prohibits them from being buried together in veterans’ cemeteries. For certain married couples, DOMA’s unequal effects are even more serious. The federal penal code makes it a crime to “assaul[t], kidna[p], or murde[r] . . . a member of the immediate family” of “a United States official, a United States judge, [or] a Federal law enforcement officer” with the intent to influence or retaliate against that official. Although a “spouse” qualifies as a member of the officer’s “immediate family,” DOMA makes this protection inapplicable to same-sex spouses.
[¶ 31] DOMA also brings financial harm to children of same-sex couples. It raises the cost of health care for families by taxing health benefits provided by employers to their workers’ same-sex spouses. And it denies or reduces benefits allowed to families upon the loss of a spouse and parent, benefits that are an integral part of family security.
[¶ 32] DOMA divests married same-sex couples of the duties and responsibilities that are an essential part of married life and that they in most cases would be honored to accept were DOMA not in force. For instance, because it is expected that spouses will support each other as they pursue educational opportunities, federal law takes into consideration a spouse’s income in calculating a student’s federal financial aid eligibility. Same-sex married couples are exempt from this requirement. The same is true with respect to federal ethics rules. Federal executive and agency officials are prohibited from “participat[ing] personally and substantially” in matters as to which they or their spouses have a financial interest. A similar statute prohibits Senators, Senate employees, and their spouses from accepting high-value gifts from certain sources, and another mandates detailed financial disclosures by numerous high-ranking officials and their spouses. Under DOMA, however, these Government-integrity rules do not apply to same-sex spouses.
* * *
[¶ 33] The power the Constitution grants it also restrains. And though Congress has great authority to design laws to fit its own conception of sound national policy, it cannot deny the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
[¶ 34] What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage. This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.
[¶ 35] The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws. See Bolling, 347 U.S., at 499–500; Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U.S. 200, 217–218 (1995). While the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from Government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does, the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes that Fifth Amendment right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.
[¶ 36] The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State. DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.
[¶ 37] The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, dissenting.
[¶ 38] On the merits of the constitutional dispute the Court decides to decide, I . . . agree with JUSTICE SCALIA that Congress acted constitutionally in passing the Defense of MarriageAct (DOMA). Interests in uniformity and stability amply justified Congress’s decision to retain the definition of marriage that, at that point, had been adopted by every State in our Nation, and every nation in the world.
[¶ 39] The majority sees a more sinister motive, pointing out that the Federal Government has generally (though not uniformly) deferred to state definitions of marriage in the past. That is true, of course, but none of those prior state-by-state variations had involved differences over something -- as the majority puts it -- “thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of [marriage] and to its role and function throughout the history of civilization.” That the Federal Government treated this fundamental question differently than it treated variations over consanguinity or minimum age is hardly surprising -- and hardly enough to support a conclusion that the “principal purpose,” of the 342 Representatives and 85 Senators who voted for it, and the President who signed it, was a bare desire to harm. Nor do the snippets of legislative history and the banal title of the Act to which the majority points suffice to make such a showing. At least without some more convincing evidence that the Act’s principal purpose was to codify malice, and that it furthered no legitimate government interests, I would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry.
[¶ 40] But while I disagree with the result to which the majority’s analysis leads it in this case, I think it more important to point out that its analysis leads no further. The Court does not have before it, and the logic of its opinion does not decide, the distinct question whether the States, in the exercise of their “historic and essential authority to define the marital relation,” may continue to utilize the traditional definition of marriage.
[¶ 41] The majority goes out of its way to make this explicit in the penultimate sentence of its opinion. It states that “[t]his opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages” -- referring to same-sex marriages that a State has already recognized as a result of the local “community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.” JUSTICE SCALIA believes this is a “‘bald, unreasoned disclaime[r].’” In my view, though, the disclaimer is a logical and necessary consequence of the argument the majority has chosen to adopt. The dominant theme of the majority opinion is that the Federal Government’s intrusion into an area “central to state domestic relations law applicable to its residents and citizens” is sufficiently “unusual” to set off alarm bells. I think the majority goes off course, as I have said, but it is undeniable that its judgment is based on federalism.
[¶ 42] The majority extensively chronicles DOMA’s departure from the normal allocation of responsibility between State and Federal Governments, emphasizing that DOMA “rejects the long-established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State.” But there is no such departure when one State adopts or keeps a definition of marriage that differs from that of its neighbor, for it is entirely expected that state definitions would “vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next.” Thus, while “[t]he State’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance” to the majority’s decision to strike down DOMA here, that power will come into play on the other side of the board in future cases about the constitutionality of state marriage definitions. So too will the concerns for state diversity and sovereignty that weigh against DOMA’s constitutionality in this case.
[¶ 43] It is not just this central feature of the majority’s analysis that is unique to DOMA, but many considerations on the periphery as well. For example, the majority focuses on the legislative history and title of this particular Act; those statute-specific considerations will, of course, be irrelevant in future cases about different statutes. The majority emphasizes that DOMA was a “system-wide enactment with no identified connection to any particular area of federal law,” but a State’s definition of marriage “is the foundation of the State’s broader authority to regulate the subject of domestic relations with respect to the ‘[p]rotection of offspring, property interests, and the enforcement of marital responsibilities.’” And the federal decision undermined (in the majority’s view) the “dignity [already] conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power,” whereas a State’s decision whether to expand the definition of marriage from its traditional contours involves no similar concern.
[¶ 44] We may in the future have to resolve challenges to state marriage definitions affecting same-sex couples. That issue, however, is not before us in this case, and we hold today that we lack jurisdiction to consider it in the particular context of Hollingsworth v. Perry, 570 U.S. ___ (2013). I write only to highlight the limits of the majority’s holding and reasoning today, lest its opinion be taken to resolve not only a question that I believe is not properly before us -- DOMA’s constitutionality -- but also a question that all agree, and the Court explicitly acknowledges, is not at issue.
JUSTICE SCALIA, with whom JUSTICE THOMAS joins, and with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins as to Part I, dissenting.
[¶ 45] This case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today’s opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation. The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution in America.
[¶ 46] Given that the majority has volunteered its view of the merits, I proceed to discuss [them].
[¶ 47] There are many remarkable things about the majority’s merits holding. The first is how rootless and shifting its justifications are. For example, the opinion starts with seven full pages about the traditional power of States to define domestic relations -- initially fooling many readers, I am sure, into thinking that this is a federalism opinion. But we are eventually told that “it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution,” and that “[t]he State’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case quite apart from principles of federalism” because “the State’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import.” But no one questions the power of the States to define marriage (with the concomitant conferral of dignity and status). So what is the point of devoting seven pages to describing how long and well established that power is? Even after the opinion has formally disclaimed reliance upon principles of federalism, mentions of “the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage” continue. What to make of this? The opinion never explains. My guess is that the majority, while reluctant to suggest that defining the meaning of “marriage” in federal statutes is unsupported by any of the Federal Government’s enumerated powers, nonetheless needs some rhetorical basis to support its pretense that today’s prohibition of laws excluding same-sex marriage is confined to the Federal Government (leaving the second, state-law shoe to be dropped later, maybe next Term). But I am only guessing.
[¶ 48] Equally perplexing are the opinion’s references to “the Constitution’s guarantee of equality.” Near the end of the opinion, we are told that although the “equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment makes [the] Fifth Amendment [due process] right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved” -- what can that mean? -- “the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from Government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does.” The only possible interpretation of this statement is that the Equal Protection Clause, even the Equal Protection Clause as incorporated in the Due Process Clause, is not the basis for today’s holding. But the portion of the majority opinion that explains why DOMA is unconstitutional (Part IV) begins by citing Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954), Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528 (1973), and Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996) -- all of which are equal protection cases. And those three cases are the only authorities that the Court cites in Part IV about the Constitution’s meaning, except for its citation of Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) (not an equal-protection case) to support its passing assertion that the Constitution protects the “moral and sexual choices” of same-sex couples.
[¶ 49] Moreover, if this is meant to be an equal-protection opinion, it is a confusing one. The opinion does not resolve and indeed does not even mention what had been the central question in this litigation: whether, under the Equal Protection Clause, laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman are reviewed for more than mere rationality. That is the issue that divided the parties and the court below. In accord with my previously expressed skepticism about the Court’s “tiers of scrutiny” approach, I would review this classification only for its rationality. See United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 567–570 (1996) (SCALIA, J., dissenting). As nearly as I can tell, the Court agrees with that; its opinion does not apply strict scrutiny, and its central propositions are taken from rational-basis cases like Moreno. But the Court certainly does not apply anything that resembles that deferential framework. See Heller v. Doe, 509 U.S. 312, 320 (1993) (a classification “‘must be upheld . . . if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts’” that could justify it).
[¶ 50] The majority opinion need not get into the strict-vs.-rational-basis scrutiny question, and need not justify its holding under either, because it says that DOMA is unconstitutional as “a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution”; that it violates “basic due process” principles; and that it inflicts an “injury and indignity” of a kind that denies “an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment.” The majority never utters the dread words “substantive due process,” perhaps sensing the disrepute into which that doctrine has fallen, but that is what those statements mean. Yet the opinion does not argue that same-sex marriage is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 720–721 (1997), a claim that would of course be quite absurd. So would the further suggestion (also necessary, under our substantive-due-process precedents) that a world in which DOMA exists is one bereft of “‘ordered liberty’” (quoting Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325 (1937)).
[¶ 51] Some might conclude that this loaf could have used a while longer in the oven. But that would be wrong; it is already overcooked. The most expert care in preparation cannot redeem a bad recipe. The sum of all the Court’s nonspecific hand-waving is that this law is invalid (maybe on equal-protection grounds, maybe on substantive-due-process grounds, and perhaps with some amorphous federalism component playing a role) because it is motivated by a “‘bare . . . desire to harm’” couples in same-sex marriages. It is this proposition with which I will therefore engage.
[¶ 52] As I have observed before, the Constitution does not forbid the government to enforce traditional moral and sexual norms. See Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 599 (2003) (SCALIA, J., dissenting). I will not swell the U.S. Reports with restatements of that point. It is enough to say that the Constitution neither requires nor forbids our society to approve of same-sex marriage, much as it neither requires nor forbids us to approve of no-fault divorce, polygamy, or the consumption of alcohol.
[¶ 53] However, even setting aside traditional moral disapproval of same-sex marriage (or indeed same-sex sex), there are many perfectly valid -- indeed, downright boring -- justifying rationales for this legislation. Their existence ought to be the end of this case. For they give the lie to the Court’s conclusion that only those with hateful hearts could have voted “aye” on this Act. And more importantly, they serve to make the contents of the legislators’ hearts quite irrelevant: “It is a familiar principle of constitutional law that this Court will not strike down an otherwise constitutional statute on the basis of an alleged illicit legislative motive.” United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 383 (1968). Or at least it was a familiar principle. By holding to the contrary, the majority has declared open season on any law that (in the opinion of the law’s opponents and any panel of like-minded federal judges) can be characterized as mean-spirited.
[¶ 54] The majority concludes that the only motive for this Act was the “bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group.” Bear in mind that the object of this condemnation is not the legislature of some once-Confederate Southern state (familiar objects of the Court’s scorn, see, e.g., Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987)), but our respected coordinate branches, the Congress and Presidency of the United States. Laying such a charge against them should require the most extraordinary evidence, and I would have thought that every attempt would be made to indulge a more anodyne explanation for the statute. The majority does the opposite -- affirmatively concealing from the reader the arguments that exist in justification. It makes only a passing mention of the “arguments put forward” by the Act’s defenders, and does not even trouble to paraphrase or describe them. I imagine that this is because it is harder to maintain the illusion of the Act’s supporters as unhinged members of a wild-eyed lynch mob when one first describes their views as they see them.
[¶ 55] To choose just one of these defenders’ arguments, DOMA avoids difficult choice-of-law issues that will now arise absent a uniform federal definition of marriage. Imagine a pair of women who marry in Albany and then move to Alabama, which does not “recognize as valid any marriage of parties of the same sex.” When the couple files their next federal tax return, may it be a joint one? Which State’s law controls, for federal-law purposes: their State of celebration (which recognizes the marriage) or their State of domicile (which does not)? (Does the answer depend on whether they were just visiting in Albany?) Are these questions to be answered as a matter of federal common law, or perhaps by borrowing a State’s choice-of-law rules? If so, which State’s? And what about States where the status of an out-of-state same-sex marriage is an unsettled question under local law? See Godfrey v. Spano, 13 N. Y. 3d 358, 920 N. E. 2d 328 (2009). DOMA avoided all of this uncertainty by specifying which marriages would be recognized for federal purposes. That is a classic purpose for a definitional provision.
[¶ 56] Further, DOMA preserves the intended effects of prior legislation against then-unforeseen changes in circumstance. When Congress provided (for example) that a special estate-tax exemption would exist for spouses, this exemption reached only opposite-sex spouses -- those being the only sort that were recognized in any State at the time of DOMA’s passage. When it became clear that changes in state law might one day alter that balance, DOMA’s definitional section was enacted to ensure that state-level experimentation did not automatically alter the basic operation of federal law, unless and until Congress made the further judgment to do so on its own. That is not animus -- just stabilizing prudence. Congress has hardly demonstrated itself unwilling to make such further, revising judgments upon due deliberation. See, e.g., Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010.
[¶ 57] The Court mentions none of this. Instead, it accuses the Congress that enacted this law and the President who signed it of something much worse than, for example, having acted in excess of enumerated federal powers -- or even having drawn distinctions that prove to be irrational. Those legal errors may be made in good faith, errors though they are. But the majority says that the supporters of this Act acted with malice -- with the “purpose” “to disparage and to injure” same-sex couples. It says that the motivation for DOMA was to “demean”; to “impose inequality”; to “impose . . . a stigma”; to deny people “equal dignity”; to brand gay people as “unworthy”; and to “humiliat[e]” their children (emphasis added).
[¶ 58] I am sure these accusations are quite untrue. To be sure (as the majority points out), the legislation is called the Defense of Marriage Act. But to defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements, any more than to defend the Constitution of the United States is to condemn, demean, or humiliate other constitutions. To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution. In the majority’s judgment, any resistance to its holding is beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement. To question its high-handed invalidation of a presumptively valid statute is to act (the majority is sure) with the purpose to “disparage”, ”injure”, “degrade”, ”demean,” and “humiliate” our fellow human beings, our fellow citizens, who are homosexual. All that, simply for supporting an Act that did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence -- indeed, had been unquestioned in virtually all societies for virtually all of human history. It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.
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[¶ 59] The penultimate sentence of the majority’s opinion is a naked declaration that “[t]his opinion and its holding are confined” to those couples “joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State.” I have heard such “bald, unreasoned disclaimer[s]” before. Lawrence, 539 U.S., at 604. When the Court declared a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy, we were assured that the case had nothing, nothing at all to do with “whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter.” Now we are told that DOMA is invalid because it “demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects” -- with an accompanying citation of Lawrence. It takes real cheek for today’s majority to assure us, as it is going out the door, that a constitutional requirement to give formal recognition to same-sex marriage is not at issue here -- when what has preceded that assurance is a lecture on how superior the majority’s moral judgment in favor of same-sex marriage is to the Congress’s hateful moral judgment against it. I promise you this: The only thing that will “confine” the Court’s holding is its sense of what it can get away with.
[¶ 60] I do not mean to suggest disagreement with THE CHIEF JUSTICE’s view that lower federal courts and state courts can distinguish today’s case when the issue before them is state denial of marital status to same-sex couples -- or even that this Court could theoretically do so. Lord, an opinion with such scatter-shot rationales as this one (federalism noises among them) can be distinguished in many ways. And deserves to be. State and lower federal courts should take the Court at its word and distinguish away.
[¶ 61] In my opinion, however, the view that this Court will take of state prohibition of same-sex marriage is indicated beyond mistaking by today’s opinion. As I have said, the real rationale of today’s opinion, whatever disappearing trail of its legalistic argle-bargle one chooses to follow, is that DOMA is motivated by “‘bare . . . desire to harm’” couples in same-sex marriages. How easy it is, indeed how inevitable, to reach the same conclusion with regard to state laws denying same-sex couples marital status. Consider how easy (inevitable) it is to make the following substitutions in a passage from today’s opinion:
[¶ 62] This state law’s [in place of “DOMA’s”] principal effect is to identify a subset of constitutionally protected sexual relationships [in place of “state-sanctioned marriages”], see Lawrence, and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And this state law [in place of “DOMA”] contrives to deprive some couples enjoying constitutionally protected sexual relationships [in place of “married under the laws of their State”], but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities.
[¶ 63] Or try this passage:
[¶ 64] This state law [in place of “DOMA”] tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid relationships [in place of “marriages”] are unworthy of state [in place of “federal”] recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier relationship [in place of “marriage”]. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moraland sexual choices the Constitution protects, see Lawrence, . . . .
[¶ 65] Or this -- which does not even require alteration, except as to the invented number:
[¶ 66] And it humiliates thousands [in place of “tens of thousands”] of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.
[¶ 67] Similarly transposable passages -- deliberately transposable, I think -- abound. In sum, that Court which finds it so horrific that Congress irrationally and hatefully robbed same-sex couples of the “personhood and dignity” which state legislatures conferred upon them, will of a certitude be similarly appalled by state legislatures’ irrational and hateful failure to acknowledge that “personhood and dignity” in the first place. As far as this Court is concerned, no one should be fooled; it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe.
[¶ 68] By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition. Henceforth those challengers will lead with this Court’s declaration that there is “no legitimate purpose” served by such a law, and will claim that the traditional definition has “the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure” the “personhood and dignity” of same-sex couples. The majority’s limiting assurance will be meaningless in the face of language like that, as the majority well knows. That is why the language is there. The result will be a judicial distortion of our society’s debate over marriage -- a debate that can seem in need of our clumsy “help” only to a member of this institution.
[¶ 69] As to that debate: Few public controversies touch an institution so central to the lives of so many, and few inspire such attendant passion by good people on all sides. Few public controversies will ever demonstrate so vividly the beauty of what our Framers gave us, a gift the Court pawns today to buy its stolen moment in the spotlight: a system of government that permits us to rule ourselves. Since DOMA’s passage, citizens on all sides of the question have seen victories and they have seen defeats. There have been plebiscites, legislation, persuasion, and loud voices -- in other words, democracy. Victories in one place for some are offset by victories in other places for others. Even in a single State, the question has come out differently on different occasions.
[¶ 70] In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s Court can handle. Too bad. A reminder that disagreement over something so fundamental as marriage can still be politically legitimate would have been a fit task for what in earlier times was called the judicial temperament. We might have covered ourselves with honor today, by promising all sides of this debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution. We might have let the People decide.
[¶ 71] But that the majority will not do. Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better. I dissent.
JUSTICE ALITO, with whom JUSTICE THOMAS joins as to Parts II and III, dissenting.
[¶ 72] Our Nation is engaged in a heated debate about same-sex marriage. That debate is, at bottom, about the nature of the institution of marriage. Respondent Edith Windsor, supported by the United States, asks this Court to intervene in that debate, and although she couches her argument in different terms, what she seeks is a holding that enshrines in the Constitution a particular understanding of marriage under which the sex of the partners makes no difference. The Constitution, however, does not dictate that choice. It leaves the choice to the people, acting through their elected representatives at both the federal and state levels. I would therefore hold that Congress did not violate Windsor’s constitutional rights by enacting Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines the meaning of marriage under federal statutes that either confer upon married persons certain federal benefits or impose upon them certain federal obligations.
[¶ 73] Windsor and the United States argue that Section 3 of DOMA violates the equal protection principles that the Court has found in the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The Court rests its holding on related arguments.
[¶ 74] Same-sex marriage presents a highly emotional and important question of public policy -- but not a difficult question of constitutional law. The Constitution does not guarantee the right to enter into a same-sex marriage. Indeed, no provision of the Constitution speaks to the issue.
[¶ 75] The Court has sometimes found the Due Process Clauses to have a substantive component that guarantees liberties beyond the absence of physical restraint. And the Court’s holding that “DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution” suggests that substantive due process may partially underlie the Court’s decision today. But it is well established that any “substantive” component to the Due Process Clause protects only “those fundamental rights and liberties which are, objectively, ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,’” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 720–721 (1997); Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105 (1934) (referring to fundamental rights as those that are so “rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental”), as well as “‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,’ such that ‘neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed.’” Glucksberg, supra, at 721 (quoting Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325–326 (1937)).
[¶ 76] It is beyond dispute that the right to same-sex marriage is not deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition. In this country, no State permitted same-sex marriage until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held in 2003 that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the State Constitution. See Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 440 Mass. 309. Nor is the right to same-sex marriage deeply rooted in the traditions of other nations. No country allowed same-sex couples to marry until the Netherlands did so in 2000.
[¶ 77] What Windsor and the United States seek, therefore, is not the protection of a deeply rooted right but the recognition of a very new right, and they seek this innovation not from a legislative body elected by the people, but from unelected judges. Faced with such a request, judges have cause for both caution and humility.
[¶ 78] The family is an ancient and universal human institution. Family structure reflects the characteristics of a civilization, and changes in family structure and in the popular understanding of marriage and the family can have profound effects. Past changes in the understanding of marriage -- for example, the gradual ascendance of the idea that romantic love is a prerequisite to marriage -- have had far-reaching consequences. But the process by which such consequences come about is complex, involving the interaction of numerous factors, and tends to occur over an extended period of time.
[¶ 79] We can expect something similar to take place if same-sex marriage becomes widely accepted. The long-term consequences of this change are not now known and are unlikely to be ascertainable for some time to come. There are those who think that allowing same-sex marriage will seriously undermine the institution of marriage. Others think that recognition of same-sex marriage will fortify a now-shaky institution.
[¶ 80] At present, no one -- including social scientists, philosophers, and historians -- can predict with any certainty what the long-term ramifications of widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage will be. And judges are certainly not equipped to make such an assessment. The Members of this Court have the authority and the responsibility to interpret and apply the Constitution. Thus, if the Constitution contained a provision guaranteeing the right to marry a person of the same sex, it would be our duty to enforce that right. But the Constitution simply does not speak to the issue of same-sex marriage. In our system of government, ultimate sovereignty rests with the people, and the people have the right to control their own destiny. Any change on a question so fundamental should be made by the people through their elected officials.
[¶ 81] Perhaps because they cannot show that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right under our Constitution, Windsor and the United States couch their arguments in equal protection terms. They argue that Section 3 of DOMA discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, that classifications based on sexual orientation should trigger a form of “heightened” scrutiny, and that Section 3 cannot survive such scrutiny. They further maintain that the governmental interests that Section 3 purports to serve are not sufficiently important and that it has not been adequately shown that Section 3 serves those interests very well. The Court’s holding, too, seems to rest on “the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment” -- although the Court is careful not to adopt most of Windsor’s and the United States’ argument.
[¶ 82] In my view, the approach that Windsor and the United States advocate is misguided. Our equal protection framework, upon which Windsor and the United States rely, is a judicial construct that provides a useful mechanism for analyzing a certain universe of equal protection cases. But that framework is ill suited for use in evaluating the constitutionality of laws based on the traditional understanding of marriage, which fundamentally turn on what marriage is.
[¶ 83] Underlying our equal protection jurisprudence is the central notion that “[a] classification ‘must be reasonable, not arbitrary, and must rest upon some ground of difference having a fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation, so that all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike.’” Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 76 (1971) (quoting F. S. Royter Guano Co. v. Virginia, 253 U.S. 412, 415 (1920)). The modern tiers of scrutiny -- on which Windsor and the United States rely so heavily -- are a heuristic to help judges determine when classifications have that “fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation.” Reed, supra, at 76.
[¶ 84] So, for example, those classifications subject to strict scrutiny -- i.e., classifications that must be “narrowly tailored” to achieve a “compelling” government interest, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 720 (2007) -- are those that are “so seldom relevant to the achievement of any legitimate state interest that laws grounded in such considerations are deemed to reflect prejudice and antipathy.” Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 440 (1985) (Stevens, J., concurring) (“It would be utterly irrational to limit the franchise on the basis of height or weight; it is equally invalid to limit it on the basis of skin color. None of these attributes has any bearing at all on the citizen’s willingness or ability to exercise that civil right”).
[¶ 85] In contrast, those characteristics subject to so-called intermediate scrutiny -- i.e., those classifications that must be “‘substantially related’” to the achievement of “important governmental objective[s],” United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 524 (1996) (SCALIA, J., dissenting) -- are those that are sometimes relevant considerations to be taken into account by legislators, but “generally provid[e] no sensible ground for different treatment,” Cleburne, supra, at 440. For example, the Court has held that statutory rape laws that criminalize sexual intercourse with a woman under the age of 18 years, but place no similar liability on partners of underage men, are grounded in the very real distinction that “young men and young women are not similarly situated with respect to the problems and the risks of sexual intercourse.” Michael M. v. Superior Court, Sonoma Cty., 450 U.S. 464, 471 (1981) (plurality opinion). The plurality reasoned that “[o]nly women may become pregnant, and they suffer disproportionately the profound physical, emotional, and psychological consequences of sexual activity.” In other contexts, however, the Court has found that classifications based on gender are “arbitrary,” Reed, supra, at 76, and based on “outmoded notions of the relative capabilities of men and women,” Cleburne, supra, at 441, as when a State provides that a man must always be preferred to an equally qualified woman when both seek to administer the estate of a deceased party, see Reed, supra, at 76–77.
[¶ 86] Finally, so-called rational-basis review applies to classifications based on “distinguishing characteristics relevant to interests the State has the authority to implement.” Cleburne, supra, at 441. We have long recognized that “the equal protection of the laws must coexist with the practical necessity that most legislation classifies for one purpose or another, with resulting disadvantages to various groups or persons.” Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 631 (1996). As a result, in rational-basis cases, where the court does not view the classification at issue as “inherently suspect,” Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U.S. 200, 218 (1995), “the courts have been very reluctant, as they should be in our federal system and with our respect for the separation of powers, to closely scrutinize legislative choices as to whether, how, and to what extent those interests should be pursued.” Cleburne, supra, at 441–442.
[¶ 87] In asking the Court to determine that Section 3 of DOMA is subject to and violates heightened scrutiny, Windsor and the United States thus ask us to rule that the presence of two members of the opposite sex is as rationally related to marriage as white skin is to voting or a Y-chromosome is to the ability to administer an estate. That is a striking request and one that unelected judges should pause before granting. Acceptance of the argument would cast all those who cling to traditional beliefs about the nature of marriage in the role of bigots or superstitious fools.
[¶ 88] By asking the Court to strike down DOMA as not satisfying some form of heightened scrutiny, Windsor and the United States are really seeking to have the Court resolve a debate between two competing views of marriage.
[¶ 89] The first and older view, which I will call the “traditional” or “conjugal” view, sees marriage as an intrinsically opposite-sex institution. BLAG notes that virtually every culture, including many not influenced by the Abrahamic religions, has limited marriage to people of the opposite sex. Hernandez v. Robles, 7 N. Y. 3d 338, 361 (2006) (“Until a few decades ago, it was an accepted truth for almost everyone who ever lived, in any society in which marriage existed, that there could be marriages only between participants of different sex”). And BLAG attempts to explain this phenomenon by arguing that the institution of marriage was created for the purpose of channeling heterosexual intercourse into a structure that supports child rearing. Others explain the basis for the institution in more philosophical terms. They argue that marriage is essentially the solemnizing of a comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing new life, even if it does not always do so. While modern cultural changes have weakened the link between marriage and procreation in the popular mind, there is no doubt that, throughout human history and across many cultures, marriage has been viewed as an exclusively opposite-sex institution and as one inextricably linked to procreation and biological kinship.
[¶ 90] The other, newer view is what I will call the “consent-based” vision of marriage, a vision that primarily defines marriage as the solemnization of mutual commitment -- marked by strong emotional attachment and sexual attraction -- between two persons. At least as it applies to heterosexual couples, this view of marriage now plays a very prominent role in the popular understanding of the institution. Indeed, our popular culture is infused with this understanding of marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage argue that because gender differentiation is not relevant to this vision, the exclusion of same-sex couples from the institution of marriage is rank discrimination.
[¶ 91] The Constitution does not codify either of these views of marriage (although I suspect it would have been hard at the time of the adoption of the Constitution or the Fifth Amendment to find Americans who did not take the traditional view for granted). The silence of the Constitution on this question should be enough to end the matter as far as the judiciary is concerned. Yet, Windsor and the United States implicitly ask us to endorse the consent-based view of marriage and to reject the traditional view, thereby arrogating to ourselves the power to decide a question that philosophers, historians, social scientists, and theologians are better qualified to explore. Because our constitutional order assigns the resolution of questions of this nature to the people, I would not presume to enshrine either vision of marriage in our constitutional jurisprudence.
[¶ 92] Legislatures, however, have little choice but to decide between the two views. We have long made clear that neither the political branches of the Federal Government nor state governments are required to be neutral between competing visions of the good, provided that the vision of the good that they adopt is not countermanded by the Constitution. See, e.g., Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 192 (1991) (“[T]he government ‘may make a value judgment favoring childbirth over abortion’” (quoting Maher v. Rue, 432 U.S. 464, 474 (1977))). Accordingly, both Congress and the States are entitled to enact laws recognizing either of the two understandings of marriage. And given the size of government and the degree to which it now regulates daily life, it seems unlikely that either Congress or the States could maintain complete neutrality even if they tried assiduously to do so.
[¶ 93] Rather than fully embracing the arguments made by Windsor and the United States, the Court strikes down Section 3 of DOMA as a classification not properly supported by its objectives. The Court reaches this conclusion in part because it believes that Section 3 encroaches upon the States’ sovereign prerogative to define marriage (“As the title and dynamics of the bill indicate, its purpose is to discourage enactment of state same-sex marriage laws and to restrict the freedom and choice of couples married under those laws if they are enacted. The congressional goal was ‘to put a thumb on the scales and influence a state’s decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws’” (quoting Massachusetts v. United States Dept. of Health and Human Servs., 682 F. 3d 1, 12–13 (2012))). Indeed, the Court’s ultimate conclusion is that DOMA falls afoul of the Fifth Amendment because it “singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty” and “imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper” (emphasis added).
[¶ 94] To the extent that the Court takes the position that the question of same-sex marriage should be resolved primarily at the state level, I wholeheartedly agree. I hope that the Court will ultimately permit the people of each State to decide this question for themselves. Unless the Court is willing to allow this to occur, the whiffs of federalism in the today’s opinion of the Court will soon be scattered to the wind.
[¶ 95] In any event, Section 3 of DOMA, in my view, does not encroach on the prerogatives of the States, assuming of course that the many federal statutes affected by DOMA have not already done so. Section 3 does not prevent any State from recognizing same-sex marriage or from extending to same-sex couples any right, privilege, benefit, or obligation stemming from state law. All that Section 3 does is to define a class of persons to whom federal law extends certain special benefits and upon whom federal law imposes certain special burdens. In these provisions, Congress used marital status as a way of defining this class -- in part, I assume, because it viewed marriage as a valuable institution to be fostered and in part because it viewed married couples as comprising a unique type of economic unit that merits special regulatory treatment. Assuming that Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the laws affected by Section 3, Congress has the power to define the category of persons to whom those laws apply.
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[¶ 96] For these reasons, I would hold that Section 3 of DOMA does not violate the Fifth Amendment. I respectfully dissent.