Busy Summer for SCOTUS

    A Closer look at a Recent Ruling

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    Toward the end of this past June, my Facebook feed was filled with lots of “White Hot” posts about the Miami Heat and the NBA Championships. Ubiquitous during the playoffs, cheers for a favorite team or player are about as common as the food-I’m-about-to-eat photos people share.

    sameSex_marriageBut then a funny thing happened in the week following the NBA mayhem. My Facebook feed was overrun with comments about the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) and several landmark decisions. Was I dreaming? In all honesty, the SCOTUS justices are my celebrities, some of them acting the role of villain, while others shine like superstars.

    For those of you a bit unfamiliar with how SCOTUS works, here’s the four-sentence primer. Lawsuits that make their way up to the US Supreme Court usually start in lower courts, sometimes federal, and sometimes state courts. Essentially, the trial case is decided, and then the losing side appeals the decision, meaning they challenge it to the next higher court. This can continue up the court ladder until there is an appeal to SCOTUS, called a writ of certiorari (there’s your impress-the-neighbors term). If SCOTUS decides to grant that appeal, then a US Supreme Court case is born.

    This summer, two of the major end-of session rulings have long-reaching repercussions for family rights of same-sex couples.Here’s a breakdown.

    DOMA case: United States v. Windsor. Edith Windsor sought to receive federal estate tax benefits after her wife, Thea Spyer, passed away. The women were legally married in Canada in 2007 and resided in New York State.

    This case considered the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Court ruled that a key section of DOMA is unconstitutionally discriminatory against same-sex couples by denying them fair access to federal marriage benefits.Some sections of DOMA remain intact, including the ability of states (like Virginia) to not recognize resident same-sex couples whom were legally married elsewhere (like in Maryland or Washington DC).

    What it means: The SCOTUS ruling in United States v. Windsor marks a shift toward governmental affirmation of equal rights protections for same-sex couples. Now, legally married same-sex couples should be able to access the same federal benefits and protections as different-sex married couples.Rolling out these changes will necessarily take some work by the federal government, and there are some pieces of the puzzle that remain to be determined. For instance, some federal benefits defer to a state’s definition of who is considered married, and lawfully married same-sex couples living in states like Virginia that do not legally permit the marriage of two people of the same gender will still encounter blocks to certain federal marriage benefits. Many legal analysts predict that the ultimate resolution of this quandary will hinge on all federal marriage benefits being dictated by the place of marriage celebration rather than the couple’s place of domicile, but this remains to be seen.

    Finally, bear in mind that this ruling only applies to federal rights. Same-sex marriage ban states will not be granting state rights to same-sex couples, even those who are lawfully married in a same-sex marriage state, as a result of the DOMA ruling.

    Special concern for parents: This case grants federal benefits to same-sex couples and their families, giving them tangible recognition of equal marriage rights under federal law. In the Court’s opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote of the DOMA section the ruling repealed, stating, “It humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.” With the ruling in the United States v. Windsor, the children and families of which Kennedy wrote are on a steady path toward complete legal equality.

    California Prop. 8 case: Hollingsworth v. Perry. This case concerned a California law that banned same-sex marriage in the state.

    Issue and ruling: SCOTUS declined to rule on the Constitutionality of Prop. 8, instead ruling that the proponents of Prop. 8 did not have standing to appeal the district court case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.In other words, the Court invalidated the appellate court ruling, and the lower court ruling that Prop. 8 is unconstitutional is the current law of the land in California.

    What it means: Standing is a party’s ability to bring or defend a lawsuit based on their stake in the outcome of the case. The bottom line in this case is, because of the SCOTUS ruling on standing, Prop. 8 is not in effect and same-sex marriage is legal in California.

    Special concern for parents: Same-sex couples who are planning a legal marriage celebration may now add California to the list of venues, and a legal marriage in California should still allow a Virginia samesex couple federal marriage benefits, subject to the potential caveats described above.

    The DOMA and Prop. 8 cases are a substantial move toward legal equality for same-sex couples and their families in the United States. Although disparity remains across the country, these cases have set an equal protection precedent of the highest judicial level and other cases will be beholden to the protections guaranteed therein.

    It also means you may start to see more posts on your own Facebook feed about SCOTUS decisions, which for civic-minded folks like me is much preferred to reading about the adventures of Grumpy Cat, or the misadventures of some professional athlete.

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    Kelly Hall
    Kelly Hall, Esq., is a full-time mom and part-time attorney. She practices law in Richmond.