SCOTUS’s DOMA Decision Illustrates Complexities of Appellate Practice

Image This post was contributed by Hallie Fisher, a third-year law student Duke University School of Law and Summer Associate at LDDK&R.

Last month the Supreme Court issued what can only be deemed a landmark ruling, United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, 2003 WL 3196928 (U.S., June 26, 2013), which held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, commonly referred to as “DOMA,” was unconstitutional.  DOMA was enacted in 1996 to ensure, among other things, that states which restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples would not be required to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed in other states.  While much of DOMA remains in effect, the Windsor case resulted in the striking of DOMA’s Section 3, which purported to define marriage only as the union between one man and one woman, and prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage for purposes of federal law, as unconstitutional.

The definition of marriage adopted by Section 3 was significant because the federal government confers thousands of benefits upon married couples, including: special treatment under the Tax Code, employment and pension benefits, and even support relating to medical privacy and hospital visitation, to name a few.  DOMA effectively denied lawfully-married same-sex couples these benefits.

As with many pivotal cases on civil and social issues (i.e., Roe v. Wade, Loving v. Virginia, and their progeny), what many articles gloss over is just how these cases get before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Windsor decision started with one person: Edie Windsor, a widow who had legally married her wife, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007. Windsor’s and Spyer’s marriage had been recognized as valid under the principle of comity by the state of New York, where the couple was domiciled.  After Spyer passed away in 2009, Windsor was required to pay over $300,000 in estate tax on her late wife’s estate. A widow from an opposite-sex marriage would not have been required to pay this estate tax because under federal law “any interest in property which passes or has passed from the decedent to his surviving spouse” is excluded from taxation.   26 U.S.C. § 2056(a).

Windsor filed suit against the United States in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Windsor prevailed on the merits in the District Court, and the IRS was ordered to refund the tax paid with interest. The decision was appealed to the Second Circuit United States Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Court’s ruling, holding that Section 3 of DOMA violated the equal protection rights granted by the Fifth Amendment.  Before the appeal was heard by the Second Circuit, the Solicitor General of the United States petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari, which was ultimately granted, and both parties delivered oral arguments in late March of 2013.

The progression of the Windsor case depicts many of the standard aspects of appellate procedure.  However, one unique aspect of the Windsor case is that the federal government did not defend DOMA’s constitutionality. Generally the Department of Justice is tasked with representing the federal government in matters relating to statutes enacted by Congress, such as DOMA.  Here, though, the Department of Justice, at the insistence of President Obama, refused to defend the Act’s constitutionality.  At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service, an executive agency, was enforcing the provisions of DOMA.  As a result of the government’s refusal to defend DOMA, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), subsidized by fundraising efforts of the Republicans of the House of Representatives adopted the defense of DOMA, hired counsel to defend DOMA’s constitutionality, and was granted leave to intervene in the case.

BLAG’s defense of DOMA highlights one of the more challenging aspects of appellate practice.  In cases argued before the Supreme Court, and in appeals at all levels, there are often complex or technical legal questions at issue that may ultimately influence whether the case is affirmed or reversed. For instance, although the main issue in Windsor was DOMA’s constitutionality, another significant issue was whether BLAG even had standing to file an appeal.   It is often the job of appellate counsel to help their clients understand that appeals are not always centered around the main issue at trial, and there can be complex issues raised in an appellate proceeding that may subvert a jury verdict or judge’s ruling even though common sense may dictate another result.

Having an attorney who will be able to understand and argue the facts and complexities of a case competently may not be the only concern, though. During the appellate stages of high stakes cases, especially those involving constitutional and social issues, it is common to have interest groups weighing in on both sides of the issue. In Windsor, literally hundreds of amicus briefs were filed on both sides of the issue, with companies like Google, Starbucks, and Aetna supporting Windsor’s case, and many religious organizations supporting BLAG and the constitutionality of DOMA.  In such high stakes cases, it is important to have appellate counsel who will be able to reconcile the client’s individual needs with the public policy considerations of the outcome of the case.  One should never lose sight of the fact that bringing a case before the Supreme Court, which has the potential to change laws that affect individuals throughout the nation, primarily affects the individual parties to the case.

While Windsor was celebrated as a victory, the victory is small in that the decision left open many important issues, such as adoption rights for gay couples, employer treatment of gay couples under federal laws like ERISA, and even protections in the criminal arena. If individuals are affected by the questions Windsor left open, it is important they contact competent counsel positioned to take on such issues. This is especially important since such cases will not only affect the individual petitioners, but could have important precedential value for others who are similarly situated.

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