DOMA and Prop 8: Here's what it all means

Today's big Supreme Court decisions on marriage are complicated -- here are the legal and practical implications

Published June 26, 2013 6:32PM (EDT)

   (Reuters/Cliff Despeaux)
(Reuters/Cliff Despeaux)

In two highly anticipated decisions handed down on Wednesday, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and dismissed a case on Proposition 8 on the grounds that supporters of the measure did not have the standing to bring an appeal. But though both rulings mark big victories for same-sex couples, what are the exact implications of the Court's decisions?

First there's DOMA: The Court held that Section 3 of the law, which defines "marriage" and "spouse" as only referring to unions between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional under the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment. This means that couples in states that legally recognize same-sex marriages - and only in those states -  are now considered married under federal law, and can receive those benefits that federal law confers upon married couples. This amounts to over 1,000 benefits, all of which are listed at the United States General Accounting Office, and includes Social Security, death and other tax benefits (which were those benefits at issue in the case before the Court, called United States vs. Windsor).

As The Washington Post points out, this case also has some implications for the federal budget:

The last time the Congressional Budget Office looked at the question was nearly a decade ago, but in 2004, the CBO found that federal recognition of gay marriages would actually increase tax receipts by 0.1 percent, amid offsetting forces: More couples would face the “marriage penalty” in which two income-earning people who marry face a higher tax bill than they would have faced separately. But there are also people like Edith Windsor, who will face lower estate tax bills because those taxes are not charged for money or assets passed to a spouse.

Since the Court did not address whether the Constitution requires states to permit same-sex marriage, individuals in those states that have not legalized same-sex marriages are not immediately impacted by the decision -- though it could potentially be used as a precedent in future cases.

The implications of the decision for state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unclear. On the one hand, as law professor Ilya Somin writes at Volokh Conspiracy, "much of the DOMA decision’s reasoning is based on federalism considerations, and therefore will not help future plaintiffs seeking to challenge state laws banning gay marriage." On the other hand, he adds, "Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court also emphasizes that laws based on 'animus' against gays and lesbians are unconstitutional," which could help those challenging gay marriage bans at the state level, since "anti-gay animus is not the only motive for laws banning gay marriage, it is a very important one. Most such laws probably would not have been enacted without it."

As for Proposition 8: In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had no jurisdiction to rule on the case, since the sponsors of the Prop 8 ballot measure had no standing to bring an appeal. The Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit's opinion, which will have the effect of reinstating the District Court ruling that the law, which banned gay marriage in California, is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered the California Department of Public Health to tell county officials to immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, once the Ninth Circuit lifts an injunction preventing it. According to the ACLU, a few things have to happen before the Ninth Circuit can do this. First, the Supreme Court's ruling must become final, which happens 25 days after the ruling is issued,  once the proponents of Prop 8 have the chance to ask the Court to rehear the case (though they will likely be unsuccessful). After this period, the Ninth Circuit will "mandate" that the case be sent back to the District Court, which will in turn implement that court's holding that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. Then, same-sex couples will be able to begin getting married.

But one thornier question remains, as Marty Lederman of SCOTUSblog explains - how broad is the scope of the District Court's decision? “District court judges generally do not have the power to issue injunctions that protect persons other than the parties before them, absent a class action or a case in which a broader injunction is necessary to ensure that the plaintiffs receive complete relief,” Lederman writes. So, though California officials are, for now, acting as though the decision applies to all of the people of California, there could be legal challenges that argue that the decision is limited to the two couples who brought the challenge to the law. As the Los Angeles Times reported, supporters of Proposition 8 have indicated that they might attempt to do just that.

Of course, in any case brought in federal court, the proponents of Proposition 8 still would run into the same standing issue that caused the Supreme Court to dismiss the case - namely that the ballot measure's sponsors did not face a specific injury from California's decision to legalize same-sex marriage. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, the fight could continue in the state courts, which have held that proponents of Prop 8 did have standing. The state courts won't be bound by the federal court's holding that Prop 8 is unconstitutional, and could potentially issue a contrary ruling, creating a state-federal split.

By Jillian Rayfield

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at

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