Maryland, DOMA And The Supremes

Jun 26, 2013

United States Supreme Court.
Credit scottlenger via Flickr

The Supreme Court’s rulings on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 brought swift reaction in Maryland, which last fall became one of the first states in the nation to legalize same sex marriage. The court held that the section of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, that recognizes only opposite sex marriages for federal purposes—tax filings, social security benefits and the like—disparages and injures “those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.”

Delegate Luke Clippinger, one of the openly gay members of the General Assembly, called the decision a fantastic ruling that will “open up thousands of rights, thousands of rights that were limited in federal law up until now.”

It means, for example, that legally married same sex couples in Maryland will be able to file joint state and federal tax returns. Under Maryland law they could file joint state returns, but would have had to file individual federal returns before today’s rulings.

The Proposition 8 ruling is more complicated.

After the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s law forbidding same sex marriages violated the state constitution, gay marriage opponents petitioned Proposition 8 to the ballot. It passed overwhelmingly, amending the state constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.  But several same sex couples sued in federal court, naming the governor and other state and local officials. They argued that the amendment violated the Equal Protection and Due Process guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.

The lower court agreed and state officials declined to appeal. So, supporters of Proposition 8 filed the appeal. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which held that the supporters lacked “standing” to appeal because they weren’t the named defendants in the original suit.

That angered Derek McCoy, the leader of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which fought same sex marriage in Maryland. “The people voted,” he argued. “Democracy ruled. And what took place today is a punch in the gut to the law of democracy for the people and the citizens of America because this is going to definitely have an effect on other ballot issues, on other constitutional amendments, all sorts of different issues, not just marriage.

But Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who has supported same sex marriage, didn’t have much sympathy for that argument. Minority rights shouldn’t be put to a popular vote, he said. “So if in the 19th century people were to vote on a national level regarding slavery or you could think of any number of instances where popular vote doesn’t necessarily mirror the constitutional arguments,” he said.

The people of California may have voted, but that doesn’t make it constitutional, he concluded. Gansler called the ruling a “true step forward” in social change, but cautioned that the battle is not over because there are still 38 states where same sex marriage is illegal and authorities can deny the legitimacy of same sex marriages performed in states where it’s legal.

McCoy agreed with Gansler that the debate will continue, despite the Supreme Court rulings.For example, while same sex marriage supporters rejoiced in the ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, McCoy minimized its effects. The court only overturned one section of the law, he said.