The Obama administrations refusal to defend the law, even though officials say theyll enforce it until its struck down, drew scornful comments from conservative justices, with Roberts suggesting that Obama doesnt have the courage of his convictions. Still, a majority of justices seemed inclined to accept the case so they might rule on the merits.
Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act declares that, for the purposes of providing federal benefits, marriage is only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife and a spouse is only a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.
The law means that an estimated 1,138 federal benefits that are provided to opposite-sex married couples are denied to same-sex married couples. These range from rights related to taxes and welfare to those of employment and immigration. A same-sex military couple, for instance, is denied housing, health insurance and disability benefits, nor is the spouse eligible for burial alongside his or her spouse in a national cemetery.
It affects every aspect of life, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.
Attorney Paul Clement, hired by House Republican leaders to defend the law, said it was simply meant to bring uniformity to a federal definition of marriage, thereby helping states. That argument didnt persuade some, with Justice Stephen Breyer telling Clement that youre saying uniform treatment is good enough, no matter how odd it is, no matter how irrational.
When it passed, the Defense of Marriage Act was politically inviolable. It passed the House by 342-67 and the Senate by 85-14. Among its supporters was then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., whos now the vice president. Several justices and attorneys agreed Wednesday that public and political attitudes have changed since then, though what that means for the Supreme Courts decision is unclear.
As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your position, Roberts told the attorney for the woman whos challenged the law.
The case came about because of Edith Windsor, a computer programmer who fell in love with a psychologist named Thea Clara Spyer in 1963. They remained a couple until Spyer died in 2009. The women had married in Canada in 2007, but the Defense of Marriage Act prohibited Windsor from receiving a deduction afforded married couples. She had to pay $363,053 in estate taxes, and the Internal Revenue Service denied her refund request.
The Obama administration initially defended the federal law, as is customary for administrations, but it stopped in February 2011. In its place, House Republicans have funded the defense of the statute through whats called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group.
While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was in the audience Wednesday, embracing Windsor before the arguments started, no congressional Republicans appeared to be in attendance.
As is his custom, Justice Clarence Thomas was the only justice not to speak or ask questions during the hearing.
A decision is expected by June.
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