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Gay Rights Advocates Score Supreme Court Victories on Same-Sex Marriage

June 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, entitling same-sex couples to federal benefits. They also ruled that defenders of California's gay marriage ban did not have the right to appeal lower rulings striking down Proposition 8. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal joins Gwen Ifill.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Supporters of same-sex marriage claimed a twin win today, coming on the final day of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term. Both of the closely-watched cases were decided 5-4.

Ray Suarez begins our coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: Outside the court building, supporters of gay marriage erupted at the first decision.

MAN: DOMA’s down. DOMA’s unconstitutional.

RAY SUAREZ: The justices had struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. That section of the 1996 law, signed by President Clinton, defines marriage as one man and one woman, and it bars same-sex couples from collecting federal marriage-related benefits.

But the majority, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, found those provisions unconstitutional.

Kennedy wrote: “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.”

The court left intact a separate provision that lets a state refuse to recognize a same-sex union from another state. Still, for gay rights supporters, the overall decision was welcome news.

MAN: I’m very proud today of our Supreme Court’s decision. It’s very, very personal, and I’m deeply appreciative.

RAY SUAREZ: A smaller group of gay marriage opponents deplored the decision.

WOMAN: Well, I’m disappointed in the ruling. I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. And I’m afraid that this ruling will affect the definition of marriage, so that if it’s not one man and one woman, it can be any — anyone.

RAY SUAREZ: Gay rights proponents also celebrated a decision on California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage. A federal trial judge found it unconstitutional, and supporters of Prop 8 appealed and lost at the appellate level.

But today’s Supreme Court majority chose not to rule on gay marriage bans in general. Instead, they found those behind the appeal had no legal standing. As a result, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that: “We have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Afterward, the principals in the case emerged, two California couples who challenged Proposition 8.

David Boies is one of their lawyers.

DAVID BOIES, Attorney for the American Federation for Equal Rights: Our plaintiffs now get to go back to California and together with every other citizen of California marry the person they love.

RAY SUAREZ: But Andrew Pugno of Protect Marriage, the group behind Proposition 8, said not so fast.

ANDREW PUGNO, Lead Counsel, Protect Marriage: Today’s ruling has completely nullified the Ninth Circuit’s ruling against Proposition 8. And we remain committed to the continued enforcement of Proposition 8, until there is a statewide order saying otherwise in California.

RAY SUAREZ: Reaction from official Washington was swift and mixed.

After leaving for Africa, President Obama released a statement applauding the DOMA decision. Aides said he later telephoned the plaintiff in that case, Edie Windsor, from aboard Air Force One. He also called two of the California plaintiffs, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, during their live interview on MSNBC.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re proud of you guys.

RAY SUAREZ: At the U.S. Capitol, a group of House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also welcomed the rulings.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif.: From the start, many of us had believed Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. And many of us believed that Prop 8 had no place in the state of California. Today, the Supreme Court agreed, and justice will be done for loving LGBT couples across my home state.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: Good morning, everyone.

RAY SUAREZ: On the other side, House Speaker John Boehner had filed the case asking the Supreme Court to uphold DOMA. He said in a statement he was disappointed.

Other House Republicans went further.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn.: What the Supreme Court ruled today was on the basis of equal protection, and yet in one of the greatest ironies in this decision, they denied equal protection to every American in the United States.

How did they do that? Because they undercut the people’s representatives when they voted on the Defense of Marriage Act in the first place.

RAY SUAREZ: The effects of the two decisions may be visible in fairly short order. The DOMA ruling opens the door for gay and lesbian couples to seek federal benefits in the 12 states where gay marriage is legal.

As for Proposition 8, the high court ruling let stand a lower court decision to strike down the California law, which means gay marriage may resume in America’s largest state in about a month.

Throngs gathered at San Francisco’s City Hall this morning to hear the news.

The NewsHour’s Spencer Michels spoke with Mayor Ed Lee about what comes next.

MAYOR ED LEE, San Francisco: There will be gay marriages all over the state of California, and so we don’t believe there will be the big rush to come to San Francisco to get married, although we are waiting for the legal instructions from the attorney general that instructs all the counties in California to abide by certain rules and regulations as they invite gay marriages to occur.

RAY SUAREZ: California Gov. Jerry Brown directed state officials to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as soon as possible, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said it won’t lift its current hold on same-sex unions for at least 25 days.

GWEN IFILL: For more on today’s court decisions, we are joined once again by Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

What a week we have had here, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: An amazing week.

GWEN IFILL: So, today was undoubtedly, no way to debate, good news for gay marriage advocates, but not for the same reasons.

MARCIA COYLE: True.

These were two very different cases. One involved what the federal government could do. The other involved what the states could do, and they raised two different questions. The first decision we heard from the bench today was in the challenge to Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and that section defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Edith Windsor, she brought the challenge. She was legally married under New York state law. After her spouse died, she was denied an IRS exemption for a spousal estate tax exemption. She was faced with an almost $400,000 dollar estate tax bill. Her spouse had left her, Edith, her estate. She prevailed in the lower courts.

They found that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, and the case came to the Supreme Court with a problem, just as the other case from California came to the court with a problem. In the DOMA case, by the time the case got to the Supreme Court, the United States had stopped defending DOMA.

So the first hurdle the court faced was whether it actually had a case or controversy before it, since the United States agreed Edith Windsor that DOMA was unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy today found that there still was a stake for the federal government in this case, the IRS’ tax bill. So he was able to reach the merits of the question that Edith Windsor had initially raised about DOMA’s constitutionality.

GWEN IFILL: And, as Ray said, Prop 8, Proposition 8, was mostly about the — that they didn’t have the standing to even bring this case to where it ended up being, so they kicked it back down for the courts in California to decide.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

Proposition 8 asked whether a state, consistent with the 14th Amendment, could define marriage as between a man and a woman. Its problem was that the proponents of Proposition 8 had appealed the trial court’s decision that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.

Did the proponents then have what we call standing to bring that appeal in federal court?

GWEN IFILL: Right.

MARCIA COYLE: And Chief Justice Roberts wrote for a divided court today that it did — they didn’t have standing.

GWEN IFILL: But, to be clear, even though, as I said, this is good news for gay rights activists, this is not the court saying that gay marriage itself, same-sex marriage is constitutional.

MARCIA COYLE: No, it was pretty clear after the oral arguments back in February that the court wasn’t going to announce a national right to marriage by same-sex couples.

But it was — this was a victory. First of all, the DOMA challenge, that was raised as whether DOMA was constitutional as applied to legally married same-sex couples. And the court said that it was unconstitutional as applied to them. Justice Kennedy looked at how states have had the authority since the beginning of our nation to regulate and define marriage.

Congress, he said, can legislate in a limited way in this area, but DOMA reaches far beyond that. It applies to over 1,000 federal laws. And he also found that what New York State for — with Edith Windsor was trying to protect, people it was trying to protect, DOMA injured, because it imposed disadvantages and a stigma on legally married same-sex couples.

GWEN IFILL: But nothing that the court did today would prohibit a state if it wanted to from passing a law banning or forbidding gay marriage?

MARCIA COYLE: No, the — Justice Kennedy was explicit in his opinion that it was confined to states that recognize legally married same-sex couples.

GWEN IFILL: And yet there were three separate dissenting opinions about this, and Justice Scalia was particularly blistering.

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Scalia read a summary of his opinion from the bench. And he took issue with the fact that there was a controversy before the court.

He would have found that there was no controversy, and the court wouldn’t have reached the merits. On the merits, he was quite passionate that the court was imposing its own moral judgment here, and not allowing the current debate over the legality of same-sex marriage or the constitutionality of it to proceed in society.

He said, instead of allowing society to elect change, the court imposed change. And he said that was only for the court’s own self-aggrandizement that it was stepping into this debate, and it was doing a disservice, he said, to both sides of the debate by not allowing them reach a final conclusion.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a legal avenue? Even though we know in California tonight they say that they’re going to wait 25 days, I guess, and allow marriages to begin, but is there a legal avenue, either through Prop 8 or through DOMA, for any of these challenges to come back to the court?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, there could be, I don’t think on the specific grounds that the court ruled here.

But Justice Scalia pointed out in his dissent and Justice — Chief Justice Roberts also mentioned that the arguments that Justice Kennedy made to knock down Section 3 of DOMA, states’ authority to regulate marriage, may be used by those who support state bans on marriage. And that may — that issue ultimately may get to the Supreme Court.

GWEN IFILL: So, maybe he was hinting around, this is the way you can bring this back, but not the way it came to us today.

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly, exactly.

GWEN IFILL: Marcia Coyle, it’s been quite a ride. Thank you so much.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.