United States v. Windsor

Following is the case brief for United States v. Windsor, United States Supreme Court, (2013)

Case Summary of United States v. Windsor

  • Windsor and Spyer were legally married and moved to New York, a state which recognized their same-sex marriage.
  • Spyer died, leaving her estate to Windsor. Windsor was denied a federal tax exemption due to the fact the couple was not of the opposite sex.
  • Windsor brought suit in a district court which held that the federal provision was unconstitutional. The government then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
  • The Court held that: (1) The reviewing court has jurisdiction to hear an appeal as long as the party retains a sufficient stake in the outcome satisfying Article III justiciability requirements. (2) The federal statute excluding same-sex couples from the definition of marriage is unconstitutional in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

United States v. Windsor Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were legally married in Canada in 2007. The couple returned to New York, a state which recognized the marriage. Thea died in 2009, leaving her estate to her wife, Windsor. Windsor claimed the federal tax exemption surviving spouses receive, but was denied any exemption under a section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Under the code’s provision marriage was defined as a “union between one man and one woman” and spouse as a member of the opposite sex. After paying the federal tax, Windsor brought suit challenging the constitutionality of the restriction in federal court.

The Attorney General notified Congress that the Department of Justice(DOJ) would no longer defend DOMA, though it would continue to enforce the provision. The House then authorized BLAG to defend DOMA.

Procedural History:

The district court held the provision was unconstitutional entitling Windsor to a tax refund. The court of appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision and the government and BLAG appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Issue and Holding:

  1. Whether a reviewing court has jurisdiction to hear an appeal if the appellant is not seeking redress from an adverse judgment? Yes.
  2. Whether a federal statute excluding same-sex couples from the definition of marriage for purposes of receiving federal benefits constitutional? No.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Reviewing court have jurisdiction to hear an appeal even if the appellant is not seeking redress from adverse judgment, so long as the party retains a sufficient stake in the outcome to satisfy Article III requirements.

A Federal statute excluding same-sex couples from the definition of marriage to prevent them from receiving federal benefits is unconstitutional.


The Court affirmed the district court’s judgment that the DOMA provision was unconstitutional.


1.  The issue at hand is justiciable. Under Article III of the United States Constitution, federal courts may adjudicate actual cases or controversies only. Standing requires the plaintiff to have an actual, redressable injury caused by the defendant. Being forced to pay an unconstitutional tax is a redressable injury sufficient to confer standing and as a result, Windsor had standing to sue.

The Court looks to INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919 (1983), where it held that standing was proper even though the executive had concluded the statute at issue was unconstitutional. There the Immigration and Naturalization Service continued enforcement of the statute, and that alone was sufficient to satisfy the case or controversy requirement. The Court held there may be an adequate controversy “where ‘the Government largely agrees with the opposing party.” Here, a true controversy still existed because the government continued to enforce the law and refused to refund Windsor’s payment. Though this case presents an unusual dilemma, this Court has the “primary role in determining the constitutionality of a law.” If the Court refused to hear this claim, the power would then be given to the president, which is inconsistent with separation of powers.

2.  DOMA’s provision defining marriage, which excludes same-sex couples, is a deprivation of liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Under Due Process each individual has a right to equal protection. DOMA governs the definition of marriage in over a thousand federal statutes and was created by Congress in 1996 in response to efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. DOMA treats same-sex couples as “second-class” absent legitimate interests justifying discrimination.

Congress may enact laws that impact marriage, however, regulation of marriage is within the states’ exclusive power over domestic relations.  Many now see this limitation on marriage as unjust and at this time eleven states have legalized same-sex marriage. The Court held that DOMA “departs from th[e]…tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage.”  Essentially the federal government is denying equal treatment to a group New York deems equal in status to opposite-sex married couples. This violates both equal protection and due process. Those guarantees require that Congress not discriminate for the purpose of harming a “politically unpopular group.” Legislative history makes it clear that both the purpose and effect of DOMA are to disadvantage married same-sex couples. The Court held that “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States code” ensuring disparate treatment of legally married couples. DOMA not only degrades same-sex couples, but harms their children and is invalid under the Fifth Amendment.

Concurring and Dissenting opinion:

Dissenting (Scalia):

The Court has no authority to overturn DOMA. The majority paints the Court as the ultimate arbiter of constitutionality above elected branches, however, the Framer’s intended to create co-equal branches. Primary authority to decide the constitutionality of laws does not rest with the judiciary. Courts may only decide cases or controversies. The power to interpret “what the law is” is incidental.

Windsor won at trial and on appeal, both parties advocated the same positions. As a result, the case should have been dismissed. The majority cites Chadha to support its position, but that case was only justiciable because the House and Senate were adverse parties, unlike the case presented here. Jurisdiction requires controversy as well as standing.

Legitimate justifications for DOMA exist. DOMA settled choice of law questions and preserved federal benefits for opposite-sex married couples. A constitutional law should not be invalidated due to Congress’s improper motives. The majority claims that DOMA’s only purpose was to dehumanize same-sex married couples and is false. The majority demeans Congress through this accusation based on the preservation of what was the universal definition of marriage until recently. This question should be answered through the democratic process.

Dissenting (Alito):

Windsor’s constitutional rights were not violated.  In addition, the federal government’s position was not adverse to Windsor’s, resulting in the majority opinion as an advisory opinion. In Chadha, Congress had standing, because the ruling impacted its power to legislate. That is not the case here.

DOMA merely clarifies the category of people entitled to benefits under federal law. Same-sex marriage is an issue of public policy to which the Constitution is silent. Substantive due process protects “fundamental rights…deeply rooted in this Nation’s history.”  There are no historical roots in same-sex marriage. Windsor argues that DOMA violates equal protection, classifications based on sexual orientation and should be subject to heightened scrutiny which DOMA cannot survive. The Court holds the scrutiny structure for equal protection claims is not well suited for marriage- related laws. The applicable standard is a question for the political branches. The majority correctly says this should be decided by the states.


United States v. Windsor as a landmark case outlined the federal definition of marriage as between members of the opposite sex, for purposes of tax benefits, as unconstitutional. The Court held that this definition violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and put the nation one step closer to the national recognition of same-sex marriage.

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