More barriers to equal rights

Affirmative judgments on Proposition 8 and DOMA likely won’t affect Minnesotans.

by James Castle


The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments on two very important civil rights cases next month, but the impact of affirmative results in these cases likely won’t affect Minnesotans.

The first case is titled Hollingsworth v. Perry. The Perry dispute originated in California in May 2009 when Kristen Perry, her partner Sandra Stier and another couple, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, filed an 11-page complaint against then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state officials in a federal district court because the couples were denied marriage licenses as a consequence of their sex. The city and county of San Francisco intervened as plaintiffs, and the proponents of Proposition 8 intervened as defendants, since the California government officials refused to defend the law. Proposition 8 is a voter-enacted amendment to the California Constitution that defines California marriages as between one man and one woman. The complaint alleged that Proposition 8 violates the plaintiffs’ right to equal protection of law and due process, per the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs also sought an injunction under U.S. code.

The Federal District Court found for the plaintiffs, holding that Proposition 8 violates the equal protection and due process clauses under the 14th Amendment because it is not rationally related to any legitimate state interest. The defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Court of Appeals, before upholding the District Court’s ruling, asked whether the defendant interveners have standing to bring an appeal before it. The California Supreme Court ruled that the proponents indeed have standing.

Here is where it gets tricky. Although the Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s ruling, it did so on narrower grounds, in such a way that the ruling only applied to California. Unlike other states, California originally allowed same-sex marriages prior to Proposition 8. Thus, the law was actually taking away a right that had been granted before. In addition, domestic partnerships in California provide the exact benefits from the state that marriage does, so there is only a discriminatory difference in title. The appellate court did not decide whether same-sex couples have a right to marry under the Constitution; rather, they decided that Proposition 8 violated the Equal Protection Clause because it served no purpose other than to signify that same-sex relationships are inferior. The defendant interveners — Hollingsworth is one of the interveners — petitioned the Supreme Court to request the case file from the appellate court for review. The Court granted the petition for a writ of certiorari.

The Supreme Court will review this reasoning by the appellate court. The Court, adding the issue on its own, will also address whether the defendant interveners have standing. If the interveners have standing, affirming the appellate court’s decision would only result in legal same-sex marriages for Californians. If the interveners don’t have standing, the case is dismissed and the narrow appellate decision still stands.

In the second case, United States v. Windsor, to be heard the day after the first case, the original plaintiff is Edith Windsor, who was married in Canada in 2007 to her same-sex partner, Thea Spyer. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was a resident of New York, and she was considered a surviving spouse under New York law. Although New York did not permit same-sex marriages until 2011, they nonetheless recognized marriages from other jurisdictions. When Windsor collected her inheritance from her spouse, the federal government taxed Windsor as if she and Spyer were strangers, rather than spouses. Normally, under federal law, surviving spouses are exempt from certain taxes, such as estate taxes on their home.

A federal act called the Defense of Marriage Act, however, in Section 3, federally defines marriages as a union between one man and one woman and defines “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Because of DOMA, Windsor was required to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes.

Windsor challenged Section 3 of DOMA in a federal district court, seeking a tax refund. She argued that DOMA violates her right to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment, which applies to the federal government, while the 14th applies to states. She won. The appellate court upheld this ruling. If the Supreme Court upholds the decision of the appellate court, however, only in states where same-sex marriage is already legally recognized will same-sex couples receive any benefits, because, without DOMA, the federal government only recognizes marriages a state does. Since Minnesota currently does not recognize same-sex marriages, Minnesotans will not see any material benefit from an affirmative result here, either.

These cases are without a doubt landmark cases for gay rights in the U.S., and they are incredibly important to millions. But decisions favorable to the gay and lesbian couples in these cases will not materially affect Minnesota and many other states. That is why it is important for Minnesotans to continue to fight for same-sex marriage in their own state, rather than erroneously relying on the Supreme Court’s upcoming decisions.