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United States v.

Case Summary of United States v. Windsor

Windsor and Spyer were legally married and moved to New York, a state which recognized their same-sex marriage.
Spyer died, leaving her estate to Windsor. Windsor was denied a federal tax exemption due to the fact the couple
was not of the opposite sex.
Windsor brought suit in a district court which held that the federal provision was unconstitutional. The government
then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The Court held that: (1) The reviewing court has jurisdiction to hear an appeal as long as the party retains a sufficient
stake in the outcome satisfying Article III justiciability requirements. (2) The federal statute excluding same-sex
couples from the definition of marriage is unconstitutional in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth

United States v. Windsor Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were legally married in Canada in 2007. The couple returned to New York, a state
which recognized the marriage. Thea died in 2009, leaving her estate to her wife, Windsor. Windsor claimed the
federal tax exemption surviving spouses receive, but was denied any exemption under a section of the Defense of
Marriage Act (DOMA). Under the codes provision marriage was defined as a union between one man and one
woman and spouse as a member of the opposite sex. After paying the federal tax, Windsor brought suit
challenging the constitutionality of the restriction in federal court.

The Attorney General notified Congress that the Department of Justice(DOJ) would no longer defend DOMA,
though it would continue to enforce the provision. The House then authorized BLAG to defend DOMA.

Procedural History:

The district court held the provision was unconstitutional entitling Windsor to a tax refund. The court of appeals
affirmed the lower courts decision and the government and BLAG appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Issue and Holding:

1. Whether a reviewing court has jurisdiction to hear an appeal if the appellant is not seeking redress from an adverse
judgment? Yes.
2. Whether a federal statute excluding same-sex couples from the definition of marriage for purposes of receiving
federal benefits constitutional? No.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Reviewing court have jurisdiction to hear an appeal even if the appellant is not seeking redress from adverse
judgment, so long as the party retains a sufficient stake in the outcome to satisfy Article III requirements.

A Federal statute excluding same-sex couples from the definition of marriage to prevent them from receiving
federal benefits is unconstitutional.

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The Court affirmed the district courts judgment that the DOMA provision was unconstitutional.


1. The issue at hand is justiciable. Under Article III of the United States Constitution, federal courts may adjudicate
actual cases or controversies only. Standing requires the plaintiff to have an actual, redressable injury caused by
the defendant. Being forced to pay an unconstitutional tax is a redressable injury sufficient to confer standing and
as a result, Windsor had standing to sue.

The Court looks to INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983), where it held that standing was proper even though the
executive had concluded the statute at issue was unconstitutional. There the Immigration and Naturalization
Service continued enforcement of the statute, and that alone was sufficient to satisfy the case or controversy
requirement. The Court held there may be an adequate controversy where the Government largely agrees with
the opposing party. Here, a true controversy still existed because the government continued to enforce the law
and refused to refund Windsors payment. Though this case presents an unusual dilemma, this Court has the
primary role in determining the constitutionality of a law. If the Court refused to hear this claim, the power
would then be given to the president, which is inconsistent with separation of powers.

2. DOMAs provision defining marriage, which excludes same-sex couples, is a deprivation of liberty guaranteed by
the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Under Due Process each individual has a right to equal
protection. DOMA governs the definition of marriage in over a thousand federal statutes and was created by
Congress in 1996 in response to efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. DOMA treats same-sex couples as second-
class absent legitimate interests justifying discrimination.

Congress may enact laws that impact marriage, however, regulation of marriage is within the states exclusive
power over domestic relations. Many now see this limitation on marriage as unjust and at this time eleven states
have legalized same-sex marriage. The Court held that DOMA departs from th[e]tradition of reliance on state
law to define marriage. Essentially the federal government is denying equal treatment to a group New York
deems equal in status to opposite-sex married couples. This violates both equal protection and due process. Those
guarantees require that Congress not discriminate for the purpose of harming a politically unpopular group.
Legislative history makes it clear that both the purpose and effect of DOMA are to disadvantage married same-sex
couples. The Court held that DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States code ensuring disparate
treatment of legally married couples. DOMA not only degrades same-sex couples, but harms their children and is
invalid under the Fifth Amendment.

Concurring and Dissenting opinion:

Dissenting (Scalia):

The Court has no authority to overturn DOMA. The majority paints the Court as the ultimate arbiter of
constitutionality above elected branches, however, the Framers intended to create co-equal branches. Primary
authority to decide the constitutionality of laws does not rest with the judiciary. Courts may only decide cases or
controversies. The power to interpret what the law is is incidental.

Windsor won at trial and on appeal, both parties advocated the same positions. As a result, the case should have
been dismissed. The majority cites Chadha to support its position, but that case was only justiciable because the

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House and Senate were adverse parties, unlike the case presented here. Jurisdiction requires controversy as well
as standing.

Legitimate justifications for DOMA exist. DOMA settled choice of law questions and preserved federal benefits for
opposite-sex married couples. A constitutional law should not be invalidated due to Congresss improper motives.
The majority claims that DOMAs only purpose was to dehumanize same-sex married couples and is false. The
majority demeans Congress through this accusation based on the preservation of what was the universal definition
of marriage until recently. This question should be answered through the democratic process.

Dissenting (Alito):

Windsors constitutional rights were not violated. In addition, the federal governments position was not adverse
to Windsors, resulting in the majority opinion as an advisory opinion. In Chadha, Congress had standing, because
the ruling impacted its power to legislate. That is not the case here.

DOMA merely clarifies the category of people entitled to benefits under federal law. Same-sex marriage is an issue
of public policy to which the Constitution is silent. Substantive due process protects fundamental rightsdeeply
rooted in this Nations history. There are no historical roots in same-sex marriage. Windsor argues that DOMA
violates equal protection, classifications based on sexual orientation and should be subject to heightened scrutiny
which DOMA cannot survive. The Court holds the scrutiny structure for equal protection claims is not well suited
for marriage- related laws. The applicable standard is a question for the political branches. The majority correctly
says this should be decided by the states.


United States v. Windsor as a landmark case outlined the federal definition of marriage as between members of
the opposite sex, for purposes of tax benefits, as unconstitutional. The Court held that this definition violated the
Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and put the nation one step closer to the national recognition of
same-sex marriage.

Student Resources:

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