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Another DOMA Win!

James Esseks,
Director, LGBTQ & HIV Project,
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June 6, 2012

When it rains, it pours! Late this afternoon, another federal judge ruled that the so-called federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the federal constitution. The ruling came in an ACLU case brought by Edie Windsor after the death of her spouse and partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer.

Edie and Thea became a couple way back in 1965. By 1967, long before marriage for same-sex couples was anything more than a pipe dream, Thea proposed marriage to Edie – that’s just what their relationship meant to them. Thea couldn’t give her an engagement ring, because Edie wouldn’t have been able to explain it to her colleagues at IBM, so she gave her a diamond pin instead. They were inseparable for the next four decades.

In 1977, Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and they both worked, over the next 30 years, to accommodate Thea’s progressive paralysis. She first used a cane, then crutches, then a manual wheelchair, and finally a motorized one that she could operate with her one good hand.

In 2007, with Thea’s health failing, they got married in Canada. In Edie’s words, “If you live together for 42 years, and you love each other for all those years, how could marriage be different? It turns out it’s different, and you don’t know why.” Edie and Thea enjoyed married life for the next two years, until Thea died.

In New York, Edie and Thea were a lawfully married couple, but because of DOMA, they weren’t in the eyes of the federal government. So when Thea left their apartment and the rest of her possessions to Edie, the IRS taxed that inheritance as though they were strangers. Where a straight widow would have owed nothing at all, Edie had to pay over $363,000 in federal taxes.

Never a timid soul, Edie challenged that tax bill – and the insult to her marriage – in federal court, in a case brought by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP, the ACLU, and the New York Civil Liberties Union. And today, the federal trial court in Manhattan ruled that DOMA violates the equality provisions of the federal Constitution.

Edie’s is the fifth case in which courts have struck down DOMA, and the fourth ruling to come just in 2012 – a veritable avalanche of judicial wisdom on our side, and a sure sign of an idea whose time has come. Now Edie is off to the federal appeals court for this part of the country, and the DOMA issue is very likely to be before the Supreme Court this coming term. Let the avalanche continue!

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