United States v. Windsor (2013)

Brief Summary of the Case (IRAC)

Issue: Does Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines “marriage” and “spouse” as excluding same-sex partners for the purposes of federal law, violate the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law for persons of the same sex who are legally married under the laws of their state?

Rule: The Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, as well as principles of federalism that recognize state sovereignty in the realm of domestic relations and marriage law.

Application: Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a same-sex couple legally married in Canada and residents of New York, were considered married under New York law. Upon Spyer’s death, Windsor was required to pay federal estate taxes because DOMA did not recognize her marriage to Spyer for federal purposes. Windsor contested the tax, arguing that DOMA violated the Equal Protection Clause by treating legally married same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples.

Conclusion: The Supreme Court held that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment and it violated the equal protection principles. It ruled in favor of Windsor, and as a result, legally married same-sex couples became entitled to federal benefits.

Detailed IRAC Outline


The primary legal issue in United States v. Windsor is whether Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, by defining marriage for federal purposes as the union between one man and one woman, violates the constitutional rights of same-sex couples who are legally married under state laws.


  1. Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause: The Clause implies equal protection under federal laws, providing that the federal government shall not deny individuals equal protection of the laws.

  2. Federalism Principles: The federal structure of the United States allows states the power to define and regulate marriage.

  3. Precedent: Previous Supreme Court cases dealing with marriage, privacy, and family law, such as Loving v. Virginia and Lawrence v. Texas, which recognize the rights related to marriage and intimate relationships.


  1. Legal Standing: The Court first addressed Windsor’s legal standing to bring the suit, concluding that the United States had a legitimate interest in her case due to the litigation’s economic implications and the broader constitutional concerns.

  2. Equal Protection Analysis: The Court applied an equal protection analysis, considering whether there was a legitimate federal interest that justified the unequal treatment of same-sex spouses. It evaluated the purpose and effect of DOMA’s Section 3, considering Congressional intent and the real-world implications for same-sex couples.

  3. Federalism Concerns: The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Kennedy, emphasized the traditional authority of states to define and regulate marriage. DOMA’s Section 3 was found to infringe upon state sovereignty by imposing federal definitions that override state-recognized legal marriages of same-sex couples.

  4. Impact on Individuals: The Court considered the dignity and stability of same-sex marriages, recognizing the harm done to couples and their families due to the denial of federal recognition and benefits.

  5. Scrutiny: While the majority did not explicitly state the level of scrutiny applied to the equal protection claim, the rationale suggests a heightened scrutiny was used, given the recognition of a historical pattern of discrimination against homosexual persons.


The Supreme Court concluded that DOMA’s Section 3 was unconstitutional. The federal statute was found to violate the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection by denying legally married same-sex couples the same federal benefits provided to opposite-sex married couples. The judgment of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals was affirmed, and Edith Windsor was entitled to a tax refund for the estate taxes she paid. This landmark decision effectively extended federal recognition to same-sex marriages in states where such marriages were legal.

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