During recent weeks the news has been filled with discussions regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings in Hollingsworth v. Perry (more popularly referred to as the “Proposition 8” case) and in United States v. Windsor (more popularly known as the “DOMA” case).
Most people are confused by these rulings. In an attempt to explain them, being the constitutional law scholar that I am NOT, I will do my best to muddle through it. The Hollingsworth case originated from litigation regarding California’s Proposition 8, which only pertains to same sex marriages within the state of California. Proposition 8 was voted in by a majority of the California voters and stated that only a marriage between a man and a woman could be recognized in the state of California. However, the proposition was challenged in court and was found to be unconstitutional.
The Windsor case addressed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that was signed into law in 1996 by then President Bill Clinton. The act defined a spouse as a term relating to a heterosexual couple only. Which meant that no matter what the state said about same sex marriages, the couple in a same sex marriage would not be recognized at the federal level. That becomes relevant for a myriad of reasons. It denied a number of things for same sex couples. For example, they could not file a joint IRS tax return, they could not receive survivor benefits under social security (as well as other social security benefits afforded spouses), they could not obtain medical insurance as a spouse of a federal government employee. Additionally, it affected immigration status, bankruptcy filings, etc. Basically, anything Federal did not recognize the marriage, even if it was legal in the state of residence of the couple. The Windsor case challenged that. The United States Supreme Court struck a portion of DOMA, by holding the law was unconstitutional as it pertained to homosexual couples. As a result, the federal government now recognizes the marriages of same sex couples and provides the couple the same benefits as heterosexual couples. However, the court recognized that each state still has the ability to decide whether or not they will recognize same sex marriages.
Now back to the Hollingsworth case. Hollingsworth, being a California case, limits the legality of marriages as it pertains to residents of the state of California. As I understand it, the U.S. Supreme court said that the people who were challenging the ruling made in the prior court, did not have the legal ability to challenge the ruling. As a result, they sent the matter back to the last court to hear the case, and ordered that the appeal be dismissed. That means that the ruling of the lower court which found Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional, is the current state of the law. Governor Brown has ordered all county clerks to issue marriage licenses to gay couples and they are now free to marry within the state of California.
The bottom line: As it stands today, it is legal to marry in the state of California if you are a same sex couple, and the Federal government will honor the union and provide the same benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples. However, the same is not true in states that do not recognize same sex marriages, such as our neighboring states of Oregon, Nevada and Arizona.
Notwithstanding, I’m certain the legal battle is not over in California, but only time will tell. And, for now, same sex marriages are legal and will be recognized by the Federal government.
Pamela Edwards-Swift, Certified Family Law Specialist, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 & 2014; Southern California Super Lawyer