With this vote on the case United States vs. Windsor, a divided US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (1996) as unconstitutional and ended Edith Windsor’s six-year battle with the government. After her wife Thea Spyer’s death, the now 83-year-old Windsor was forced to pay more than $600,000 in state and federal estate taxes—a burden that the government would not have levied had her spouse been “Theo” and not “Thea.” (Read the full Windsor opinion.) The majority held that “violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” Federal agencies are already adjusting to the ruling.
The justices also ruled 5-4 in the matter of California’s Proposition 8. In Hollingsworth vs. Perry (formerly Brown vs. Perry and Schwarznegger vs. Perry), the Court found that the petitioners did not have standing to appeal the district court’s ruling of unconstitutionality. The district court had ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and the State of California didn’t appeal that decision; the Supreme Court decided that the civil society organizations who had promoted Proposition 8 did not have the authority to appeal in the State’s place. (Check out this analysis on SCOTUSblog, and read the full Hollingsworth opinion.)
My Twitter timeline was full of joy about these rulings—yet at the same time these determinations come at the end of a wild week in governance with disappointing impacts nationwide. Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act (1965/2005) was undermined and Section 4 was struck down. The Supreme Court determined that the slavery-era percentage approach to “race” trumped the Cherokee people’s membership rules. And the Court decided that an employer is only automatically liable for workplace harassment if the harasser is a direct line supervisor. (Opinion: Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl & Case Files | Opinion: Vance vs. Ball State University & Case Files)
“Volumes of evidence supported Congress’ determination that the prospect of retrogression was real. Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” —Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissenting in Shelby Co. vs. Holder
So what’s next for the US? Reactions to this week’s decisions have been divided along lines of ethnicity, class, sexuality, and religion or philosophy; many of us celebrate some decisions while being sorrowful about others because we have more concerns than one.
So I can get married but my minority friends can’t vote. Hooray.
— Jay Michaelson (@jaymichaelson) June 26, 2013
What’s left after our groups sharply disagree, not just on beliefs or ideas, but also on the practical issues of how to treat whole segments of the population? If we sit at a common table (and there are some who, contra the Supreme Court’s Shelby Co. decision, point to sustained and entrenched contemporary discrimination and dispute that the nation’s table is commonly shared), what is it that binds us, demographic and philosophical differences and all?
Will the US hold together over the next few years? How are we One and not merely Many? Is our collective future to be as split as our Supreme Court is today? I don’t think we can afford that. I’m interested in alternatives. You?
Cheers to Steve Claborn for the Fishkin link on Shelby County, and to Carolyn Parson for the OPM statement.