United States v. Windsor

The Defense of Marriage Act and United States v. Windsor

The Defense of Marriage Act was at issue in the civil rights lawsuit United States v. Windsor. (DOMA). This federal law established the legal union between a man and woman who become husband and wife as the definition of "marriage." Due to the DOMA, the plaintiff, Edie Windsor, was left with at least $360,000 in federal estate taxes to pay after her husband passed away. (Knauer, 2014). This tax was being levied against a married pair by the federal government, which was wrong. He launched a lawsuit to challenge the DOMA's constitutionality because he was unhappy with its conditions. Before this, the interpretation of spouse and marriage was purely meant to refer to members of opposite sex. The basis of rendering the provision as inappropriate was because it was not in line with the Due Process as per the requirement of the 5th amendment. Questions were raised on whether the Supreme Court was effective in ensuring there is equal protection of married gay couples.

The Case of Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor

Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor had been married since 2007 before Spyer's death in 2009 (Adam, 2003). The two women were living in New York and were registered as domestic partners when the right to the same sex was given in New York. Windsor was thereafter left with an estate, frequently making attempts to be exempted from the federal estate tax that encompasses any surviving spouse. Her efforts were thwarted through the provision of the DOMA under section 3. She had no other option but to pay the estate taxes but later on requested to be refunded by the Land Revenue Service (Knauer, 2014). The body declined her request, and she was forced to take a refund suit to the District with the rationality that the District Court had violated the principles of equal protection that are stipulated in the 5th amendment.

The Court's Rulings and the Impact

While the case was underway, the Justice Department distanced itself from defending the constitutionality of DOMA's Section 3. Another entity called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group made an intervention took a similar path as the Justice Department. The District Court made a ruling against the United States and came to a conclusion that the DOMA was unconstitutional. The Treasury was ordered to refund the tax taken and add interest to it. After an appeal had been made, the decision of the District Court got an affirmation from the Court of Appeal (Adam, 2003). It was unfortunate for Windsor that the US government failed to neither make the refund nor defended the DOMA's constitutionality. With a 5-4 final decision vote, Justice Kennedy authored a majority opinion, and the Supreme Court came to the conclusion that the DOMA's Section 3 was unconstitutional.

Judicial Restraint and the Windsor Case

The decision arrived at by the Supreme Court has an effect on the validation of the LGBT community. Besides, it affects important issues of estate planning in the modern times. Besides, the decision arrived at came out as being impetuous to legal changes at the state and federal level. The impacts of this ruling stem from a right decision made by the Supreme Court. A contradiction that was evident regarding the 5th amendment's due process would call for the provisions of the relatively weaker document ruled out. Despite their same-sex marriage in Canada, the couple was supposed to be protected in the new state and most importantly, by the law.

The Importance of Judicial Restraint in the Windsor Case

The decision arrived at by the Supreme Court reflects a form of judicial restraint. At the core of judicial restraint is the need for the judges making the ruling to limit their powers as law interpreters in the evaluation of cases at hand (Wallace, 1981). Judges are advised to be cautious before making a decision to strike down the laws unless they are sure of their unconstitutionality. This was the situation that the justices found themselves in and had to critically scrutinize the controversial section in DOMA to establish its appropriateness. The Supreme Court concluded that the decision made by the lower courts was baring the efforts to have equal rights appreciated. It, therefore, had to overturn the ruling and grant Windsor her rights without any forms of discrimination. The judges respected the fact that the constitution was a higher law that was above all ordinary statutes and whenever a conflict would arise, the constitution should be consulted first. This was the rationale used in arriving at the judicial restraint.

Precedents and the DOMA Case

Besides, judicial restraint entails upholding the already established precedents that were previously handed down by other judges. An argument that this was the first case of its kind is true, although a closer look reveals otherwise. To prove this, it is worth appreciating that the couple was living in New York City where same-sex marriage was legalized. This move proved that the couple was to be perceived as any other despite not being of the opposite sex. Having this in mind, Windsor was entitled to equal treatment that would be accorded any other couple in the district. Therefore, the previous rulings regarding the federal tax exemption ought to have applied to this scenario for equality to thrive.


Adam, B. D. (2003). The Defense of Marriage Act and American exceptionalism: The" gay marriage" panic in the United States. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 12(2), 259-276.

Knauer, N. J. (2014). LGBT Elders in a Post-Windsor World: The Promise and Limits of Marriage Equality.

Wallace, J. C. (1981). Jurisprudence of Judicial Restraint: A Return to the Moorings. Geo. Wash. L. Rev., 50, 1.

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