The U.S. Supreme Court convened on Monday to kick off a new term that could prove to be a watershed for same-sex couples across the country.
The court will take on a wave of high-profile issues in the 2012-13 term, including voting rights, affirmative action, and whether cases of purported human rights abuses abroad can be heard in U.S. courts.
But arguably none of the cases on the docket this term will be as closely watched by Americans as the court’s possible rulings on gay marriage, one of the country’s most contentious and divisive social issues.
“We are at a national turning point, and what the Supreme Court decides in these cases will have a lot to say about the direction of gay equality in the United States,” said Suzanne Goldberg, co-director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School in New York City.
The court this term is widely expected to issue a ruling on the constitutionality of a provision in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denies numerous federal benefits to same-sex couples, even if those couples’ marriages are legal in the handful of states that recognize same-sex unions.
“If the court takes DOMA, it’s fairly likely to strike it down as unconstitutional,” said Douglas NeJaime, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “That would mean the federal government would begin to recognize same-sex marriages from states where they are legal.”
Such a ruling would not force the states to sanction same-sex marriages, NeJaime noted. It would merely put same-sex marriages recognized in certain states on the same legal footing with heterosexual couples for purposes of federal benefits, such as social security survivor benefits.
One case that could be heard by the court is a lawsuit filed by 83-year-old Edith Windsor, who was slapped with a $363,000 tax bill for assets she inherited after her female spouse died in 2009.
The couple was legally wed in New York and Massachusetts, but because DOMA does not recognize same-sex marriage, the assets did not fall under the tax exemption granted to heterosexual couples in such situations. Windsor’s attorneys are pushing for the Supreme Court to hear her lawsuit challenging DOMA given her poor health and advanced age.
Another gay marriage case the court might hear this term is the 2008 amendment to California’s constitution banning the state from recognizing same-sex unions. A federal appeals court later ruled that the amendment, widely referred to as “Proposition 8,” was unconstitutional, and the law’s proponents have asked the Supreme Court to rule in the case.
The Proposition 8 challenge more closely addresses the issue of the constitutionally of bans on same-sex marriage than the DOMA lawsuits, said Marc Spindelman, a professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.
While the ruling in the California case was very specific to that particular amendment, gay marriage opponents may be eager to get a Supreme Court ruling on its legality in order to head off similar challenges in other states that currently ban same-sex marriages, Spindelman said.
“Opponents see the possibility of this expansion, and that the way to address this is to expose the potential and logic of it,” he said.
The looming gay marriage battles in the U.S. Supreme Court come at a time of intense debate across the country about gay rights.
California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation banning therapy aimed at changing the sexual orientation of people under the age of 18, officials announced over the weekend.
Brown referenced words immortalized by Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky after signing the legislation, saying these forms of therapies "will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery."