Windsor's court challenge to marriage law argued at Supreme Court

Edith Windsor

Edith Windsor (Credit: Edith Windsor (Nancy Borowick))

A New York City woman is at the center of a landmark same-sex marriage case being heard by the Supreme Court Wednesday.

Advocates for same-sex marriage in New York are proud that one of their own has led the charge against the Defense of Marriage Act up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on the law Wednesday.

Edith Windsor is an 83-year-old retired IBM systems programmer living in Manhattan who said DOMA violated her constitutional right to equal protection when the federal government sacked her with what she calls a "gay tax" -- a $363,000 bill to inherit the estate her late spouse Thea Clara Spyer, a clinical psychologist who died in 2009.

"The government taxed what I inherited from Thea as though we were strangers rather than spouses," Windsor said in a 2012 news conference with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing her with its New York arm.

A key section of DOMA requires the U.S. government to only recognize marriages between opposite-sex couples, meaning Windsor would never have paid the money had Spyer been a man.

"What you need in these cases is the right plaintiff," said Assem. Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan), who has met Windsor. "Edie Windsor is the right plaintiff. She is a charming, articulate woman."

The Supreme Court is hearing the case alongside a challenge to California's Proposition 8, a voter initiative that banned same-sex marriage, which was argued Tuesday. Decisions in both cases are due by the end of June.

The couple, who met in New York in 1963, registered in New York City as domestic partners in 1993 and ultimately married in Toronto in 2007. At the time, New York State recognized legal out-of-state same-sex marriages until allowing them here in 2011.

O'Donnell, who expects DOMA to be struck down, was confident in Windsor's lawyer, Robbie Kaplan, a Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison attorney who represented the lawmaker in his own marriage-equality case in state court. O'Donnell said he understands the toll a constitutional case can take on a plaintiff.

"She's expending her time and her energy to right a wrong," he said. "We all owe her a great debt of gratitude."

Hal Weiner, general counsel to the Stonewall Veterans Association, said he is most proud about Windsor bringing a "perfectly valid argument" to the Supreme Court.

"I hope the court listens to her and doesn't duck the issue," he said.

Mike Long, the chair of the state Conservative Party, said he believes marriage-equality advocates are wrong to push their cause through litigation. He rejected the idea that opposing same-sex marriage in New York is a lost cause today.

"We're not going to change our stripes," he said. "We're going to continue to . . . protect society against further erosion and destruction of traditional marriage."

As Windsor awaits the Supreme Court's decision, she can look forward to being one of the grand marshals at the 44th Annual NYC LGBT Pride March in June.

"I think that 2013 is Edith's year. She's kind of the poster child for the gay-rights movement this year," said Chris Frederick, managing director of NYC Pride. "Her battle tells a really strong story about what it means to be LGBT in today's society."


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