(Photo: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)
A New York Federal appeals court heard from lawyers on both sides of the Defense of Marriage Act debate on Thursday in an ongoing battle over traditional marriage that is expected to eventually reach the Supreme Court.
The case in New York concerns 83-year-old New Yorker Edith Windsor, who is petitioning that her 2007 marriage to Thea Spyer, who has since passed away, should have afforded her the same federal rights as those given to heterosexual spouses.
"The Defense of Marriage act discriminates against gay people," Windsor said outside the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday. "Not only is it illegal, as my lawyers argued today, but it refutes, it really challenges the basic principles on which this country was founded: fairness and equality."
DOMA, signed in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton, seeks to preserve the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Spyer's argues that since she was married to Windsor in Toronto, Canada, she should not have had to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes. The couple became engaged in 1967, and Spyer passed away in 2009 after battling multiple sclerosis for many years.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up Windsor's case earlier this year, petitioning that DOMA violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law. In June, the NYC court initially ruled in their favor, with their argument getting a boost from the Obama administration stating that it could no longer defend the law. House Speaker John Boehner formed the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group to defend DOMA, however, and Thursday's hearing was a result of the group's appeal.
Former Solicitor General Paul Clement, arguing in defense of DOMA, explained before the court that the need to deny homosexual couples federal benefits was so that uniformity was preserved at the federal level, allowing states to decide for themselves how they define marriage.
"I don't think anyone on either side minimizes the importance of what's at stake here," Clement said. "This is an issue that can be left to the democratic process."
"The main issues in these cases revolve around equal protection, the idea that this federal law treats similarly situated people differently," commented Jonathan Entin, a professor of constitutional law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.
Windsor added at the hearing that she hopes she is still alive when the federal government finally recognizes all marriages as legal. A ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court on her case is expected to come within several weeks.
"I know my spouse Thea, who shared my life for over 40 years, is here in spirit, and I'm sure she's very proud that we've got this far," said Windsor.
Meanwhile, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said earlier this month during a University of Colorado Law School appearance that she expects DOMA to reach the Supreme Court by next year.
"I think it's most likely that we will have that issue before the court toward the end of the current term," said Ginsburg.