Supreme Court Considers Two Same-Sex Marriage Issues

By Smith, Ron | Policy & Practice, June 2013 | Go to article overview
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Supreme Court Considers Two Same-Sex Marriage Issues

Smith, Ron, Policy & Practice

In late March the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases that will have profound consequences for human service programs regardless of how the justices rule. The two cases deal with different aspects of the issue--same-sex marriage. The first case (1) asked to the Court to consider "whether the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the State of California from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman." The 14th Amendment (Section One) reads:


No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The second case (2) asked the Court to consider "whether Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (3) 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."

The Fifth Amendment states in part that:

No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...

The importance of these cases to states in how they must administer human services is difficult to overstate. Virtually any federal or state program that is means tested includes a definition of a family unit either implicitly or explicitly embedded in it. The definition of a married couple is critical to issues such as adoption, custody rights, surrogacy, and foster care. The rulings in these cases could change the way a child's parents are defined and how the parent/child relationship can be protected.


Eligibility for programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program depend, in part, on the definition of a family unit. Disability programs, many state long-term care programs, child support, eligibility for services such as mental health or behavioral health, even Medicaid and Medicare, could be affected by the Court's rulings.

The federal government uses marital status as a trigger or qualification for more than a thousand programs, many of which affect how human service programs are administered. Many have argued that as more states are likely to allow same-sex marriage, keeping a dual regime for what constitutes a marriage for determining benefits will create unnecessary and expensive administrative complexity. At the same time, does it make sense for federal benefits to differ depending on which state someone lives in?

Both cases before the Court have complicated standing issues. The issue of standing is vitally important in our system of jurisprudence. In order to bring a case before the Court a party must establish a "direct stake in the outcome" of the case. If the justices determine that the plaintiffs lack proper standing to bring the case before the Court, they stop at that point, no determination on the merits of the case is made, and as a result, the decisions of the lower court applies.

In 2000, the voters of California adopted a proposition that amended the state's law to limit marriage to one man and one woman. The California Supreme Court ruled that law violated the state's constitution and therefore invalidated it. A critical point in this case is that in doing so the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages were permissible under California law. (4) The opponents of same-sex marriage organized a new campaign and a different proposition (Proposition 8) passed in 2008 that, instead of amending the marriage laws, amended the state's constitution to provide that "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." When Proposition 8 passed, it reversed the state's Supreme Court's decision recognizing same-sex marriages.

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