Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy Friday joined in filing an amicus brief in the United States Supreme Court in U.S. v. Edith Schlain Windsor, a landmark challenge to Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA.
Leahy is a leading cosponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA, and as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee he presided over an historic hearing on DOMA in June 2011. Key findings from that hearing are frequently cited in the brief filed Friday, including testimony from Susan Murray, a Vermont lawyer who said that DOMA has "the effect of eroding our financial security." Another witness at that hearing, responding to a question from Leahy, conceded that DOMA is harmful to children whose families are affected by the law. That finding is also included in the new brief.
"All couples who are lawfully married under state law, including in Vermont, should be entitled to the same federal protections afforded to other married couples," Leahy said in a statement Friday. "The Supreme Court has an opportunity to find that DOMA is inconsistent with the nation's march toward equality."
Gay and lesbian couples can now marry in nine states, including Vermont, and the District of Columbia. Leahy and others point out that it is clear that DOMA does not rationally serve and, in fact, undermines, Congress's legitimate interests in the welfare of American families. Section 3 of DOMA defines marriage for purposes of federal law as "only a legal union between one man and one woman," excluding all other lawfully married couples from all marriage-based federal responsibilities and rights. The constitutionality of this law is being challenged in the Windsor case, and the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments later this month.
In Edith "Edie" Windsor's case, the federal government taxed Edie more than $363,000 when her spouse, Thea Spyer, passed away in 2009. The couple first met in 1965 and married in 2007, after an engagement that lasted more than 40 years. Yet when Thea died, the federal government treated them as complete strangers because of DOMA, significantly reducing Edie's inheritance by denying her protections from the estate tax that other married couples receive.
Edie, who is now 83 years old, challenged DOMA as a violation of equal protection. The federal district court in New York City and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, holding that DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment's equal protection guarantee.
The members' brief urges the Supreme Court to uphold the Second Circuit's decision. It adds the unique perspective of Members of Congress -- including some who voted against DOMA and others who voted for it -- about the enactment of DOMA and why Section 3 is unconstitutional.
As the Congressional amici point out to the court: "The goal of maximizing the financial well-being and independence of widows is not furthered by depriving Edie Windsor and others like her of the estate-tax exemption that other married Americans receive. The policy of encouraging employers to provide family health benefits is not served either by denying to employers the tax deduction for providing those benefits to married gay and lesbian couples or by refusing to cover spouses of gay and lesbian federal employees. Our national security is undermined by denying spousal benefits to gay and lesbian servicemembers, especially during periods of armed conflict. Our veterans are dishonored when we deny them the right to have their spouses buried alongside them in our national cemeteries."
A total of 40 Senators and 172 members of the House signed onto amicus the brief, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), along with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Ranking House Constitution Subcommittee Member Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Ranking House Judiciary Member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). Signatories also include Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).
Full text of amicus brief: