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You're Up, Second Circuit: NYC Judge Strikes DOMA

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 07, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Everybody who’s anybody is taking a swipe at the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) these days.

It’s like marriage equality is the new black, or DOMA is the new Affordable Care Act.

Now, a federal judge in New York City has given the Second Circuit Court of Appeals an opportunity to get in on the action. Wednesday, District Judge Barbara Jones ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional because it improperly interferes with states’ rights to regulate marriage, reports Reuters.

Unlike the DOMA challenges based on federal employee benefits that have been in the news lately, the New York case, Windsor v. United States, addresses a more common problem: estate taxes.

Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer were together for 44 years. They got engaged in 1967, and were married in Canada in May 2007. Two years later, Thea passed away, after living for decades with multiple sclerosis.

Under federal tax law, a spouse who dies can leave assets, including the family home, to the other spouse without incurring estate taxes. Because the federal government did not recognize their marriage, the IRS taxed Windsor's inheritance from Spyer.

Windsor sued to recover $353,053 in federal estate tax she was not allowed to claim because her marriage was not legally recognized due to DOMA. Judge Jones ruled in Windsor's favor, and ordered the government to return the money, reports Reuters. Judge Jones concluded that the DOMA conflicts with the states' rights to regulate marriage, and "such a sweeping federal review in this arena does not square with our federalist system of government."

It's likely that the Supreme Court will consider a marriage equality case this year, whether it's the Ninth Circuit's Perry v. Brown Prop 8 appeal, or one of the DOMA cases, (such as the recently-decided First Circuit Gill case or the pending Ninth Circuit Golinski appeal).

The states' rights argument might be an easier sale to the Federalist-heavy Supreme Court, but it's not the best approach for marriage equality proponents because 38 states have adopted prohibitions against same-sex marriage. Among those, 29 states have adopted constitutional amendments limiting marriage to one man and one woman.

The question now is whether the Court will examine the issue merely from a states' rights standpoint, or if it will address the greater equal protection issue.

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