Supreme Court of the United States

In Re: The Definition of Marriage Act of 2015

Case No. 15–09, 100 M.S.Ct. 105


The Chief Justice delivered the opinion of a unanimous Court.

In many ways, marriage has been the barometer for how certain minorities are viewed by society as a whole. In the latter half of the 20th century, changes to marriage law involving people of different races (culminating in this Court’s decision that anti-miscegenation laws violate the Constitution, see Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)), reflected the overall attitudes towards those of different races in the broader society. Now the Nation finds itself confronted with another such question: what status is to be given to those who pursue same-sex relationships. In 2013, this Court addressed still another restriction, finding that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. ____ (2013).

Earlier this year, Congress passed B.082, titled the Definition of Marriage Act of 2015 (“the Act”), which amends 1 U.S.C. §7 to provide a new definition of “marriage” for the purposes of other federal law, as well as mandating how States handle their own marriage licensing processes. Section 1 of the Act is in essence an anti-DOMA, in that it defines “marriage” for the purposes of federal law to specifically include same-sex couples in a “legal union.”

The Court must exercise special caution in addressing issues that lie at the heart of our society as a whole. Marriage is a significant facet of many people’s lives, and of the overall social structure of our country. Virtually every individual’s life will, in some way, be affected by whether they or someone else can or is married or not, ends such a relationship or not.

I.

Section 1 redefines the definition of marriage for the purposes of federal benefits such as income tax filings, Social Security survivor’s benefits, and the like. Indeed, this covers tremendous ground: we recognized in Windsor that there were some 1,000 other federal laws that were affected by the definition found in 1 U.S.C. §7. Windsor at ____ (slip op. at 2). Petitioner challenges this new version on several grounds, including the Tenth Amendment, the Commerce Clause, and a more fundamental question about whether Congress may amend a law that has previously been found to be unconstitutional. Each of these challenges will be considered in turn, and for the reasons below, we find the challenge to Section 1 to be without merit.

A

Petitioner’s first argument is that the Tenth Amendment “precludes Congress from legislating upon marriage.” In support, he cites to Windsor, where we observed that the States have traditionally been responsible for regulating marital relations. E.g. Windsor at ____ (slip op. at 14) (“By history and tradition the definition and regulation of marriage…has been treated as being within the authority and realm of the separate States”).

However, as we noted in Windsor, that rule is not absolute. There are numerous examples of federal law superseding state law, even when it comes to marriage. Earlier in the same term in which Windsor was decided, this Court upheld a law that gave a former spouse priority in a life insurance setting over a second spouse (who was married to the decedent at the time of death), even where state law provided otherwise. Hillman v. Maretta, 569 U. S. ___ (2013). The majority in Windsor provided numerous other examples of situations where federal law may deem a marriage as “invalid” in certain contexts even where that marriage would be valid under the law of a State, including marriages for the purposes of obtaining citizenship, and that common-law marriages would be used to determine the household income of an applicant for Social Security benefits, even if his or her State does not recognize such a relationship.

More importantly (and more problematic for Petitioner’s claim), Windsor was ultimately decided on the basis of Equal Protection. Because Ms. Windsor’s home state of New York had chosen to recognize same-sex marriages, DOMA actually usurped that State’s authority by making a valid New York marriage invalid for the purposes of federal law. In other words, this caused the federal government to override New York’s determination about which of its citizens could marry. Recognizing this, we found that there was no legitimate basis for the discriminatory impact of DOMA.

But the Act at issue here is not analogous. It does not prevent a State from recognizing a certain kind of relationship. On the contrary, it means that those States that do recognize same-sex relationships will see those relationships be treated equally by the federal government as well. Meanwhile, those States that continue to ban same-sex relationships do not see their definitions changed by Section 1. By making a broader definition, the Act gives more leeway to the States to define their marital relations.

As for Petitioner’s allegations that this section violates the Tenth Amendment, this too must fail. The federal government is not prohibited from all policy decisions, and once it makes them, Congress has great latitude in determining the means to affect the changes it seeks. As explained above, there are numerous laws that rely upon the definition of marriage in 1 U.S.C. §7, and this Court is unaware of any that have been challenged successfully.

Petitioner’s challenge under the Commerce Clause must also fail for similar reasons. He argues that because the Act does not affect interstate commerce, it is beyond Congress’s’ authority. While this premise is debatable, it is also insufficient; broad though it may be, the Commerce Clause is not the only means by which Congress may pass a law. Moreover, as explained above, the Court is not aware of any case where the statutes that rely on the federal definition of marriage have been struck down (and Petitioner cites none). Congress may make any laws that are necessary and proper to complete its objectives (providing those objectives and enacting measures are otherwise constitutional). If the government wishes to, for example, provide survivor’s benefits as part of the Social Security system, it follows that there must be a determination as to who is eligible. Provided this definition is not discriminatory, there is no doubt that it is within Congress’s purview.

Finally, Petitioner questions whether Congress may amend a law that was previously found to be unconstitutional. We find no constitutional problem with Congress doing so. This Court striking down a law as unconstitutional does not constitute a complete bar to Congress making any laws, or even laws on the same subject matter of the law that was previously nullified. Moreover, this seems mostly a question of semantics: is it Congress “amending” a law that was previously found to be unconstitutional or passing a new one that is codified in the same place? This is a distinction without a difference.

B

In addition to the above challenges to Section 1, Petitioner also questions whether Congress may require states to issue marriage licenses. This presumably refers to Section 2 of the Act, which states that “Marriage licenses nationwide shall be issued to couples according to the amended text of 1 U.S. Code § 7, and shall be issued to create legal marriages regardless of gender or gender identity pairings.”

This Court has long recognized as fundamental the principle that the States maintain a great deal of sovereignty in our federal system. See generally In re: Equal Healthcare Act of 2015, 100 M.S.Ct. 101 (opinion of raskolnik, C.J.). As explained in that case, this Court has repeatedly held that the federal Legislature may not command a State to do anything. The federal constitution may do so, of course, and the federal government may seek to enforce those provisions. But in general, a federal statute or regulation that commands a State or officer of a State to do a certain thing in their official capacity is void.

We do not address the question of whether States must allow same-sex marriages or recognize those performed by States that do so. But even assuming without deciding that they must, Section 2 cannot survive. While it is true that the government may enforce constitutional mandates, there is nothing in the federal constitution that requires the States to issue marriage licenses. Should they choose to do so (as all of them have), they must not deny anyone equal protection of the law. But as we have explained, marriage is generally left to the States, and those States may choose not to have any such institution. Many other schemes could be implemented (or not), but again, the federal Legislature cannot force a State to recognize the institution as a whole. In other words, the Constitution requires that a State give whatever recognition it chooses to all citizens, but does not require one specific form of that recognition. It is clear from the wording of Section 2 that this is what Congress has attempted to do; it says that marriage licenses “shall” be issued, which clearly denotes a command to the States.

While we have recognized that marriage is one of a citizen’s “basic civil rights,” Loving, 388 U.S. at 12, this does not mean that this right may not be satisfied under some other legal framework that would, in turn, conflict with Section 2. In other words, this general principle is insufficient to mean that a State must issue a marriage license (pursuant to Section 2 or otherwise), and that basic civil right may be satisfied in other ways. We decline to list and analyze all possible permutations, as the question of what, exactly, this right requires is not before us. For the purposes of this decision, it is sufficient to say that the federal Legislature may not demand that the States define marriage a certain way provided that the State’s laws comply with constitutional protections. No challenge to a State law on this subject is before us, and this Court does not and may not act preemptively.

We therefore find that Section 2 conflicts with basic federalism, and is invalid.

C

Finally, Petitioner challenges the Act’s effective date. Specifically, he questions whether Congress may enact a law that does not address taxation or spending that takes immediate effect. We find no reasons why this should not be the case. Nothing in the text of Article I suggests otherwise, and no precedent of this Court has read a different interpretation into that or any other provision. On the contrary, we have held the exact opposite to be true:

When Congress enacts a new statute, it has the power to decide when the statute will become effective. […] In statutory cases the Court has no authority to depart from the congressional command setting the effective date of a law that it has enacted.

Rivers v. Roadway Express, Inc., 511 US 298, 313 n. 12 (1994). We find no reason to deviate from this principle today.

II.

Only one question remains to us, which is whether the Act as a whole can survive in light of Section 2’s invalidity. We hold that it can.

The remaining provisions of this Act (Sections 1 and 3) have independent effects, and are not dependent on Section 2 for meaning or validity. This may be contrasted with our decision regarding the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act of 2015, where we found that the failure of one portion of that law in essence took the rest with it. In re: Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act of 2015, 100 M.S.Ct. 104 (2015). In the instant case, however, Section 1 clearly has its own effects and may survive on its own. Striking the text of Section 2 does not interfere with the other provisions’ effects, and so we find the Act to be severable.

* * *

We again find that Congress oversteps its authority when it orders the States to perform certain tasks (including following some Congressional policy decisions). On the other hand, Congress may generally decide for the purposes of federal law what social policies to enact and encourage, and has broad authority to regulate its own programs, tax regulations, and the like. Thus Section 2 of the Act violates basic constitutional guarantees on State sovereignty, while Sections 1 and 3 are wholly within Congress’s purview. Section 2 therefore is null and void, while Section 1 may continue to be in effect since the Act’s passage.

It is so ordered.

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