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Four Supreme Court Decisions In A Nutshell

June 27, 2013

The Supreme Court of the United States announced four important decisions this week:

United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307:  Edith Windsor’s same-sex marriage in Canada to Thea Spyer was recognized by the State of New York. Spyer’s estate was left to Windsor upon Spyer’s death, but Windsor was barred from claiming the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses by §3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined “marriage” and “spouse” as excluding same-sex partners.  After the Internal Revenue Service denied the tax refund Windsor sought, she brought a refund suit challenging DOMA as violating the equal protection principles incorporated in the Fifth Amendment.  After the Bipartisan Legal Advisor Group of the House of Representatives intervened in the litigation following the Department of Justice’s determination it would no longer defend §3’s constitutionality, the District Court found §3 unconstitutional.  The Second Circuit affirmed.  Today, the Court affirmed, holding first that the Court has jurisdiction to consider the merits of the case, and second, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, because no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.

The Court’s decision is available here.

Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144:  California passed Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that amended the State Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.  Same-sex couples who wish to marry brought suit against California’s Governor and other state and local officials, challenging Proposition 8 under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The initiative’s official proponents, the petitioners here, were permitted to intervene to defend the law when the defendant officials refused to do so.  The District Court found Proposition 8 unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement.  Only petitioners appealed; the defendant officials did not.  The Ninth Circuit, after first certifying a standing question to the California Supreme Court, held that petitioners had federal standing to defend Proposition 8’s constitutionality, and affirmed the District Court on the merits.  The Court today vacated and remanded, holding that petitioners do not have federal standing because they have not suffered a concrete and particularized injury, and observing that the Court has never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. By ruling the Ninth Circuit was without jurisdiction to hear the appeal, thus leaving the District Court’s decision in place, the effect of the Court’s decision will be to allow same-sex marriages to resume in California.

The Court’s decision is available here.

Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96:  Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applies to “covered jurisdictions” – those States or political subdivisions that maintained tests or devices as prerequisites to voting, such as literacy and knowledge tests, and had low voter registration or turnout in the 1964 Presidential election (as originally enacted) and 1968 and 1972 Presidential elections (as reauthorized and amended in 1970 and 1975).  Subsequent reauthorizations in 1982 and 2006, however, did not alter this coverage formula.  For these covered jurisdictions, Section 5 of the Act states that no change in voting procedures can take effect until approved by federal authorities, a process called “preclearance.”  Petitioner Shelby County lies in the covered jurisdiction of Alabama, and brought suit, seeking a declaratory judgment that Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Act are facially unconstitutional.  The District Court upheld the Act, on the basis that evidence before Congress in 2006 was sufficient to justify reauthorization of Section 5 and Section 4(b)’s coverage formula, and the D.C. Circuit affirmed.  Today, the Court reversed, holding that Section 4(b) is unconstitutional because the formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.  The Court also made clear that its decision does not affect the permanent, nation-wide ban on racial discrimination in Section 2 of the Act, nor was the Court issuing any holding on Section 5 itself of the Act.

The Court’s decision is available here.

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, No. 11-345:  Petitioner, a Caucasian, challenged the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduate admissions process, in which race is considered as one of various factors, but is not itself assigned a numerical value for each applicant, although the University is committed to increasing minority enrollment on campus.  The District Court granted summary  judgment to the University on petitioner’s equal protection clause challenge.  The Fifth Circuit, in turn, affirmed.  The Court today vacated and remanded the Fifth Circuit’s judgment, holding that the Court of Appeals did not apply the correct standard of strict scrutiny.

The Court’s decision is available here.

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From → 2013 Interim

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