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Supreme Court Will Hear Same-Sex Marriage Cases

The Supreme Court on Friday announced that it would hear two same-sex marriage cases before the end of its term: one related to a California ballot proposition and another related to the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The oral arguments in both cases will likely be in March, with a decision due before the court recesses at the end of June, according to Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog.

In the first, Hollingsworth v. Perry, the court will decide whether the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits California’s Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

In the second, United States v. Windsor, the justices will consider the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman for federal and interstate purposes such as health insurance, immigration status and filing tax returns.

In that case, the court will also weigh in on the Obama administration’s decision to stop enforcing DOMA, and whether it is legally appropriate for the House to continue defending the law.

After the Justice Department announced in 2011 that it deemed DOMA unconstitutional and would stop defending it in the courts, congressional Republicans took up the cause, using the House’s Office of General Counsel and contracting with former Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, who is now in private practice. Lawyers for House Republicans asked the Supreme Court in June to hear a separate DOMA-related case, though it was not one of the pair the high court chose to consider.

Groups on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue immediately praised justices’ decision to hear the cases and spun the announcement as an indicator that they will eventually prevail.

“We believe it is a strong signal that the court will reverse the lower courts and uphold Proposition 8,” said John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, which raised money to pass the proposition and has played a key role in the legal battle to preserve it.

“Today is a milestone day for equal justice under the law and for millions of loving couples who want to make a lifelong commitment through marriage,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights organization.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision to review DOMA and ensure that Congress affords all families equal treatment under the law. Congress failed this fundamental obligation when it hastily passed DOMA in 1996 and foreclosed federal recognition for married same-sex couples,” read a statement issued by House LGBT Equality Caucus Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Barney Frank, D-Mass.; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; David Cicilline, D-R.I.; John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.; and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

The justices considered more than 10 court petitions related to same-sex marriage during their conference on Friday morning. Most, like Windsor, were related to issues raised by DOMA and its subsequent enforcement. A pending case regarding an Arizona statute barring same-sex marriage will likely be on hold while the court determines the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and DOMA.

Though a divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Proposition 8 was an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it stayed its ruling while the parties appealed. Therefore, marriage license will not be granted to same-sex couples in California while the Supreme Court considers the case.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans have long clashed over the 1996 federal law, but both sides agree that the high court should step in. For Democrats, it is a matter of doing away with a statute that they say violates equal protection guarantees by withholding federal benefits from same-sex couples who were legally married under state law. Several federal appeals courts have agreed.

For Republicans, the law serves a legitimate governmental interest by promoting the traditional definition of marriage and encouraging family values, such as child-rearing with both a mother and a father.

In a filing at the Supreme Court in June, lawyers for House Republicans made clear that they prefer a swift resolution to the legal debate, particularly as challenges over the marriage law have emerged in more courts.

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