The U.S. Supreme Court made headlines on Friday when it agreed to hear two cases which may have significant implications on the rights for same-sex couples in New York and throughout the country. The stage is now set for a few months of speculation and commentary on possible outcomes before the Court finally hears the cases. It is important for same-sex couples to understand the implications of each case, as the legal issues in each are different.
DOMA & State Bans on Marriage
One of the cases which the Court will hear is United States v. Windsor. As we have often discussed, at the center of the Windsor case is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Several appellate courts have now found that parts of DOMA violate the U.S. Constitution in that they deny federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. In granting the petition of those appealing the lower court rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely settle the matter once and for all.
Alternatively, the second case that the Court agreed to hear, Hollingsworth v. Perry, stems from the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage in California. Unlike the DOMA case which deals with federal recognition of these unions, the Prop 8 case has implications for individual state decisions on marriage rights. There is a bit more legal complexity to the Prop 8 case, as the district court and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both struck down the Proposition but for slightly different reasons. The bottom line is that, depending on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in that case, same-sex marriage may not be allowed in California, be allowed in parts of California, all of California, or even in every state in the union. However, because same-sex marriage is already legal in New York, the rights of gay couples in our state will likely be most directly affected by the outcome in Windsor.
Interestingly, in both cases there are “standing” issues. That means that there is disagreement regarding whether the specific parties seeking the appeal even have the right to be in court on this issue at all. Therefore, on each case the Supreme Court has the option of rejecting the appeal without actually reaching the merits of the case.
What Is In Store
The actual hearings for these two cases will likely take place in late March–perhaps even on the same day. Following those hearings, the Court will deliberate and eventually reach a decision. Opinions will be written and then officially released to the public, likely sometime in late June.
Perhaps the only immediate change for local couples is that, becase the Windsor case was accepted, there is a “stay” on the lower court decisions in DOMA cases. In other words, had the Supreme Court refused to hear these cases, then there is a chance that DOMA may not have had effect in those jurisdictions where courts found it unconstitutional. However, as expected, the Supreme Court itself will have the final say. Until they declare otherwise, DOMA is in full effect, and same-sex couples in New York–even when married legally–need to conduct unique estate planning to account for their disparate treatment under federal law.
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