A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices cast doubt on the constitutionality of a federal law defining marriage as a heterosexual union, hinting at a ruling that might bolster the drive toward letting gays marry nationwide.
On the second day of arguments over one of the country’s most polarizing issues, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote, suggested he viewed the federal government as overstepping its authority with the law, which limits the benefits available to gay couples.
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The law is “not consistent with the historic commitment of marriage and of questions of the rights of children to the state,” he said.
At the same time, Kennedy and other justices grappled with procedural questions that threaten to derail the case.
The court’s first-ever arguments on the issue come as support for gay marriage hits record highs among politicians and the public. The justices yesterday, in a separate case, suggested that they might not rule directly on a constitutional right to gay marriage, a step that would disappoint many advocates on both sides of the issue. Nine states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriages.
In Wednesday’s case, President Barack Obama’s administration is joining a New York widow in urging the court to strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA. Under the law, gay spouses can’t claim the federal benefits available to other married couples, including the rights to file a joint tax return and receive Social Security survivor benefits.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that when legally married couples can’t receive such federal benefits, “One might well ask, what kind of marriage is this?”
Support for gay nuptials has soared since 1996, when DOMA was approved 342-67 in the House of Representatives and 85-14 in the Senate before President Bill Clinton signed the measure into law. Clinton now opposes DOMA.
The Obama administration is continuing to enforce the law, even while arguing against it in court. That stance prompted Chief Justice John Roberts to say the administration lacks “the courage of its convictions.”
The administration is asking the high court to say for the first time that laws that discriminate against gays should be given “heightened scrutiny,” a stricter standard than the court uses for other types of laws. Racial minorities and women are already protected by heightened scrutiny.
The justices spent only a few minutes on that question in today’s almost two-hour session. Roberts questioned whether gays needed any special constitutional protection.
“Political figures are falling all over themselves to endorse your side of the case,” Roberts told Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer arguing against the law.
Congressional Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, are defending DOMA. They contend it promotes traditional marriage and, by extension, makes it more likely that children will grow up in a nurturing environment.
Their attorney, Paul D. Clement, said the government’s goal is uniform treatment of taxpayers in the various states. Under questioning from Justice Stephen Breyer, Clement said the federal government also could decide not to recognize state-law marriages based on matters such as differing ages of consent.
“You’re saying uniform treatment’s good enough, no matter how odd it is, no matter how irrational,” Breyer said.
Justice Elena Kagan questioned whether uniformity was the real motivating force behind the law. She pointed to a congressional report that said lawmakers were expressing a “moral disapproval of homosexuality.”
The law “is not called the Federal Uniform Marriage Benefits Act,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli said. “It’s called the Defense of Marriage Act.”
DOMA is being challenged by Edie Windsor, an 83-year-old New York resident. Windsor is fighting a $363,000 federal estate tax bill, imposed after the 2009 death of her same-sex spouse, that she wouldn’t have to pay if she were married to someone of the opposite sex. Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer were married in Canada in 2007.
The court spent almost an hour wrestling with procedural issues. One question is whether the Constitution gives the court power to decide the case, given that both sides -- that is, Windsor and the federal government -- agree the law is unconstitutional. The court also is considering whether the congressional leaders have standing to press their own appeal.
A ruling that the court lacks power to rule might leave the status of DOMA in legal doubt for years.
Almost 300 employers are urging the court to strike down DOMA, arguing that the law costs businesses by forcing them to set up parallel benefits systems for gay and heterosexual married employees. The group includes Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Citigroup Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Pfizer Inc.
The high court will rule in both cases by the end of June. The cases are United States v. Windsor, 12-307, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, 12-144.