Supreme Court Will Hear Oral Argument On Two Cases Involving Same-sex Marriage

On March 26th and 27th, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor, two cases which could impact the right to spousal benefits under employee benefit plans.

Case involving California’s Proposition 8 Law
In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of Proposition 8.

In 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage because it violated the guarantee of equal protection in the California constitution. Later, California voters approved Proposition 8, a ballot measure amending the state constitution to specifically disallow same-sex marriages.  Because Proposition 8 involved federal constitutional issues, the case was appealed to Federal District Court and subsequently to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the District Court’s holding that Proposition 8 violates the United States Constitution because California had effectively given same-sex couples the right to marry and then taken it away again.

Case Challenging Defense of Marriage Act
In United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court will determine the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton.  The question is whether DOMA violates the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws as applied to persons of the same sex who are legally married under the laws of their State.  DOMA defines  "marriage" as a union of a man and a woman and is used in any federal law, including laws that govern pension benefits, veterans' benefits, tax adjustments, Social Security, and many other benefits.

The Windsor case arose from a federal estate tax disputes. Because DOMA limits federal benefits to only heterosexual marriages, the Internal Revenue Service demanded that Ms. Windsor pay an estate tax of $363,053 upon her same-sex spouse’s death, even though New York recognized the marriage as valid.

The Supreme Court will have a decision in these two cases by the end of June 2013. For specific questions about these issues and their impact on your plan, please contact your Trust Fund counsel.

By Linda Baldwin Jones

Legal Developments