It’s a good day to be a liberal. Today marks two major milestones in liberal legislative efforts regarding civil rights. The Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional and a Texas bill that would have pushed even further restrictions on abortion has been deemed moot by the State Senate.
The Defense of Marriage Act was a 17-year federal law signed in by President Bill Clinton in 1996 that barred the government from recognizing same-sex marriages legalized by states. It was the mechanism by which the government could deny federal tax, pension and partner benefits to same-sex couples. Early Wednesday the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to rule the law unconstitutional due a violation of the Fifth Amendment. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”
The case which heralded today’s ruling is the United States v. Edie Windsor. The plaintiff, Windsor, 84, sued the federal government after the Internal Revenue Service denied her request for a $363,000 refund of federal estate taxes she paid after her spouse, Thea Spyer, passed in 2009.
No one is terribly surprised by the new ruling, for the March oral arguments in the court suggested distinctly that many of the judges doubted DOMA’s constitutionality. Justice Ruth Baker Ginsburg is recorded as stating that the law seemed to want two types of marriage, where same-sex unions were the “skim milk” version. The Justice Department under President Barack Obama had also been campaigning for a repeal of the law since 2011. House Republicans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours holding up an aggressive defense of DOMA, to no avail.
The Supreme Court was due to rule on another piece of human rights legislature today: Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban. By a 5-4 vote on Hollingsworth v. Perry, the justice rules that Proposition 8 could not be constitutionally defended in federal courts after the ballot measure was struck down by a federal judge in San Francisco. “We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here,” said Chief Justice John Roberts. What this means is that the case on same-sex marriage is being sent back to California; the issue is not totally resolved.
The second Democratic victory today took place in Texas where new abortion legislature was scheduled to take a vote. The bill sought to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and it would have required abortion clinics to meet hospital-style surgical center standards. Moreover, only doctors with admitting privileges at nearby hospitals would be qualified to carry out abortive procedures.
The Senate convened yesterday to vote on the bill which had already passed in the House; at 11:18 Senator Wendy Davis took the floor and waged an epic filibuster to stall the vote. During a filibuster a senator must follow strict requirements—Senator Davis was not permitted to sit down nor stray from the topic at hand. After 11 hours of standing and talking, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst finally dismissed Senator Davis after deciding that she had gone off topic.
A vote was taken minutes before midnight and the bill passed on a 19-to-10 vote, but because of all the ruckus it could not be officially signed in the presence of the Senate the legislature was deemed dead.