Specially, two cases were debated in front of the judges earlier in the year: the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA, and Proposition 8.
To backup a bit, the United States is a behind when it comes to gay rights and equality. While in Sweden and most of Western Europe has legalized gay marriage, people in the US are embroiled in a bitter controversy of gay marriage rights between usually, religious conservatives, and liberals.
Yea, we are backwards. But going to the cases, I’ll try to break them down for you to easily understand. One thing that is essential to understand in US is the sovereign rights of states versus those of the federal government. It’s usually a reason why many cases head through the appeals as the states, federal, and the people jockey for rights asserted under the state and federal Constitutions.
First, it is uncommon for the Supreme Court to bundle cases together but they did so for this hearing. The cases were not directly about gay marriage rights, or what we would consider rights under the first amendment. The first case was about due process, while the Prop 8 case related to state’s ability to defend a case.
In the majority ruling for the DOMA case, SCOTUS ruled that the federal law violated due process in the Fifth Amendment. Most of us know that the Fifth Amendment protects us against double jeopardy but it also protects against unfair due process, specifically, “…nor shall any person…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion. In it, he said,
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “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.”
It’s in the due process statement that SCOTUS felt the federal law took liberties away by separating the population (those who are homosexual) and applied a different process to them.
In the end, married gay and lesbian couples are now granted the same federal rights as heterosexual couples. That includes more than 1,100 legal benefits, like passing of wills, tax exemption, health care and more, for such couples.
Justice Scalia, known for his wild banters, dissented on the DOMA case and his remarks were nothing short of amusing. Calling the majority view as demonizing the DOMA supporters, “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.”
The Proposition 8 case was a bit more interesting from a legal standpoint. The case reached the Supreme Court by ways of proponents of the proposition who were unsatisfied with the lower court decisions.
To clarify how this case made its way up the ranks, here’s a timeline of Prop 8.
The interesting part is that the Supreme Court ruled on a technicality. Chief Justice John Roberts said,
“We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here.”
In all, Proposition 8 is struck down by ways of the District Court. Attorney General Jerry Brown just announced that marriage licenses should be handed out as soon as possible in all the counties.