Supreme Court to hear Prop. 8, DOMA cases

The United States Supreme Court said Friday it will review the decision to strike down Proposition 8 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California as well a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that denies married same sex couples federal benefits.

For the first time, the high court will have the chance to rule on whether or not gay and lesbian couples have the constitutional right to marry.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to take up the issue of same-sex marriage is a major step forward for lesbian and gay Americans who have long fought for their constitutional right to fairness and equality,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) in a statement.

“The Defense of Marriage Act is an affront to our country’s values of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ and I hope the Supreme Court will rule against this unjust legislation so that all Americans can be assured the same civil rights under the law,” he said.

In February, the California court ruled to strike down Proposition 8, a ballot measure approved by the state’s voters in the 2008 general election that prohibits same-sex marriage, however, that ruling has been suspended until the case is reviewed by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court will begin hearing the cases March 25 through March 27 of next year. Rulings are expected around the end of June, the same time LGBT communities across the country celebrate Pride Month.

Currently, same-sex marriage is legal in nine states — Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts. Voters approved gay marriage in three of those states — Washington, Maine and Maryland — early last month.

LGBT rights advocates here in Illinois have recently suggested that the state’s legislature is mere months away from approving a marriage equality bill that has been stalled in a General Assembly rules committee since March. A vote on the bill could come as early as January or later, when the new Spring session begins.

Anthony Martinez, executive director of Chicago-based LGBT rights group The Civil Rights Agenda, said the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the cases is encouraging for LGBT people everywhere.

“This is an incredibly significant and historic moment,” Martinez said in a statement.

“This can have incredible implications for marriage in all 50 states,” he told Chicago Phoenix. “It’s extremely exciting, particularly at a time when we’ve seen an upswing in support for same-gender marriage, across the country and here in Illinois.”

Martinez notes that the high court likely won’t rule until late June, and could potentially come after Illinois approves a marriage equality bill.

“Folks in Illinois are on the precipice of achieving marriage equality,” he said. “This could go either way, but we shouldn’t slow the pace of work for marriage rights in Illinois. I don’t think this will stop the momentum that we are seeing here in Illinois.”

Local advocates like Martinez stress that work towards marriage equality should not stop here.

“We are very close to passing equal marriage legislation in Illinois and we must continue forward,” said Rick Garcia, a longtime LGBT rights activist and policy director at TCRA. “The Supreme Court’s actions cannot be determined until the justices rule, which will most likely not be until the summer. We must continue to work to pass this legislation so that if DOMA is invalidated, same-gender couples and families in Illinois will be able to access federal benefits.”

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, another Chicago-based LGBT rights group, shares a similar view, but emphasized that supporters should ramp up efforts to pass a marriage bill in the state.

“Our opponents are likely to make every effort during this period to try to stymie progress in Illinois, saying we should wait to hear from the court,” Cherkasov said in a statement. “Given the success of marriage equality initiatives in the General Election and growing support for it throughout the country including Illinois, we need to continue to press for action in our state.”

In addition, Martinez views both cases chosen by the court as “extremely important” due to how they will affect equal protections as the law relates to gay and lesbian couples.

“Looking at equal access for gay and lesbian couples, this will have implications for other institutions in the government. DOMA limits so many rights, and benefits bested upon opposite gender couples for same-gender couples,” Martinez said.

The case for striking down Proposition 8, too, creates the potential for broad implications in respect to equal protections under the law as provided by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision narrowly struck down the law on the basis that rights that were given to gay and lesbian Californians could not be later taken away.

While that ruling avoided broad implications, the Supreme Court has the potential to rule that equal protection under the law means marriage cannot be limited to heterosexual marriages. At the same time, the justices may not rule in that manner.

Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, as codified in federal law, defines marriage as only between a man and a woman and therefore denies federal marriage benefits to couples who are married in states where it is legal. Those couples can only receive benefits from the state, a fraction of the range of benefits provided by the federal government.

Leading up to Friday’s announcement, four federal courts and two appeals courts have ruled DOMA unconstitutional.

Out of the handful of DOMA challenges presented to the court, the justices decided to take up the case of Edith Windsor. Martinez views this decision as sign of a potential positive ruling in June.

Windsor, 83, sued after being slapped with a $363,000 federal estate tax when her partner of 44 years died in 2009. The case contends that if Windsor had married a man that she wouldn’t owe a cent.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled in Windsor’s favor, agreeing that Section 3 of DOMA deprived her of equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the constitution.

“There were multiple DOMA cases before [the justices]. They chose the WIndsor case for very specific reasons — only the justices will know — but this case strikes the heart of the DOMA law,” Martinez said. “I think what is really important about that case is that it would invalidate the definition of marriage as it related to the limitation of just to straight couples. That is the point of the law. The fact they chose that case and how narrow it is, is really important.”

“I think this one is very concise and really, really exciting that they picked this one up specifically,” he said.