June 26, 2013 – The U.S. Supreme Court today issued two gay rights rulings, including striking down a major provision of the Defense of Marriage Act and clearing the way for possible resumption of same-sex marriages in California. The DOMA decision will allow legally married same-sex couples to qualify for federal benefits based on marital status. In the second ruling, the high court let stand a trial court’s finding that California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. University of the Houston Law Center Associate Professor Aaron Bruhl, who teaches courses on the federal court system, and Clinical Associate Professor Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the Law Center’s Immigration Clinic, interpret today’s decisions and their ramifications.
Q.) What did the court rule today?
Today the Supreme Court decided by 5-4 votes two cases on same-sex marriage. The first case concerned the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages even in those states that now allow it. The Supreme Court ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional because it denies equal rights and interferes with the states’ authority to regulate marriage.
The second case, from California, concerned whether the states are required to allow same-sex couples to marry. The Supreme Court found a procedural defect that prevented it from ruling on the big question in that case. The trial court’s ruling that allowed same-sex marriage stays in place. The governor of California has announced that all state officials should follow that decision, but there are some unresolved questions about how that will happen.
Q.) How do these rulings affect the marriage laws in states like Texas, which do not have same-sex marriage?”
Today’s decisions do not directly affect Texas, at least not immediately. Same-sex marriage is still not allowed in Texas. But today’s decision in the DOMA case could lead, in the future, to a national constitutional right for all couples to marry.
Q.) What federal benefits will be affected by the DOMA ruling? Will this likely expand into other areas?
Any federal law that depends on marital status could be affected. Today’s decision concerned estate taxes, but there are hundreds of ways in which federal law confers benefits or imposes liabilities based on marital status.
Q.) Effects of the DOMA ruling will be widespread, how will it affect the nation’s immigration policy?
The court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor striking down DOMA on Fifth Amendment equal protection grounds will have profound effects on immigrants and immigrant rights. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and principles of comity, the immigration authorities are required to respect and apply the law where the marriage took place. The law of the place of marriage normally applies to determine the validity of the marriage. In the immigration context that might mean applying the law in Massachusetts if, for example, the U.S. citizen petitioner and foreign national beneficiary were married there, or in some other state where same-sex marriage has been legalized. Petitioners and beneficiaries who are in legitimate same-sex marriages sanctioned by the state -- or country -- in which the marriage arose will now under the Supreme Court’s decision be entitled to be recognized by the immigration authorities. There are three separate areas within the context of immigration where this will have the greatest impact: (1) in family-based cases involving marriage adjustment of status or consular processing; (2) in employment-based cases where the principal applicant has a sponsoring business but also seeks to bring his/her same-sex spouse as a dependent beneficiary; and (3) in waiver cases and other cases involving relief from deportation, such as for example cancellation of removal, where there must be an appropriate “qualifying relative” who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse. The immigration courts and the administering agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, now will be obliged to recognize those lawful same-sex marriages. As a result, more people will be potentially eligible to apply for waivers and/or relief from removal.
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