DOMA Ruling: Overturn a Huge Leap for Justice, But With a Price

At approximately 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court officially voted Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in U.S. v. Windsor. In this case, Edith Windsor challenged the Defense of Marriage Act, saying that the federal government taxed her excessively because it did not recognize her same-sex marriage. Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act dictated that the federal government would not recognize any same-sex marriages. This means that all same-sex married couples would be denied any federal benefits pertaining to their marriage.

In one fell swoop, the Supreme Court made a decision that changed the scope of over 1000 federal laws, regarding issues such as estate taxes, immigration laws, health benefits, pensions, social security, etc. But the court’s ruling is not just practical — it’s symbolic as well. The Supreme Court is saying that in the federal government’s eyes, same-sex couples are just as important and as valuable as opposite-sex couples. Same-sex married citizens are not second-class citizens. This ruling marks one giant leap in the march for civil liberty and equality.

I am thrilled at these implications of the DOMA ruling. I wholeheartedly agree that Section 3 of DOMA unfairly deprives same-sex couples of liberty and property. But when I read Justice Scalia’s dissent, I couldn’t help but agree with some of his points. I do not think that the GOP had standing to argue this case in front of the Supreme Court in the first place. When Edith Windsor initially sued to get her estate taxes back, the District of New York ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional, and that she definitely should get her money back. This New York ruling should have been the end of the story.

When the Obama administration heard about this court case, he didn’t want to do anything. Obama refused to defend DOMA because he believed it unconstitutional. It was the GOP that brought the case to the Supreme Court. But the GOP had no personal stake in the money contested by Windsor. Only parties with a personal stake in a case can have the standing to bring the case to the Supreme Court. In the case of U.S. v. Windsor, only the Obama administration and Windsor had a personal stake in the case. The GOP did not have the standing to bring this case to the Supreme Court.

Why does standing matter? It makes all the difference because it restricts the power of the Supreme Court. The United States’ 3-branch government consists of a delicate system of checks and balances, with specific roles and responsibilities for each branch. The legislative branch has the responsibility of legislating the Constitution and public policy, while the judicial branch has the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution and public policy when applied to specific cases and situations. If one branch becomes more powerful than the other branches, it would be much harder to guard against corruption in our government.

A number of checks are in place to ensure that the Supreme Court sticks to interpreting, and does not stray into the territory of the legislative branch. One such check is the fact that the Supreme Court can only hear cases brought by those who have a personal stake in the case. The GOP in U.S. v. Windsor had no personal stake in the case, and so therefore the Supreme Court should not have issued their decision. If the Supreme Court could hear cases brought on by just about anybody, people would bring up cases simply because they disagree with the public policy behind it. If this were to happen, it would undermine the original purpose of the Supreme Court. It is the Supreme Court’s primary duty to judge cases and specific controversies present in real life situations. Their judgment of abstract ideas and policies are only a secondary duty. It is the primary job of the legislative branch to deal with public policy, and the Supreme Court should not have too much of a say in the matter.

I wish, somehow, that a plaintiff who did in fact have standing could have brought DOMA before the Supreme Court. This way, the Supreme Court would not have had to overstep its bounds in order to issue a decision that will do so much good for our country. 

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Laura Zhang

Laura is a recent graduate of Georgetown University with a BA in Philosophy. She grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, but she spends many summers in Shanghai taking classes and interning at law firms. She will talk your ear off and bombard you with questions if you get her started on philosophy, but if you don't mention philosophy she is just as happy talking about normal things too. In her spare time she loves to run, watches Suits, Game of Thrones, and Doctor Who, and bakes amazing shortbread cookies.

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