WASHINGTON, March 27 (RIA Novosti) – The US Supreme Court on Wednesday indicated it may strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman that denies numerous federal benefits to same-sex couples, even in states that recognize same-sex unions.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely seen as the key swing vote on a nine-member panel sharply divided along ideological lines, suggested during Wednesday’s arguments that the 1996 law constituted an overreach of federal power.
Kennedy noted that by establishing a legal definition of marriage, DOMA impacts benefits under around 1,100 federal statutes and thereby puts the federal government in conflict with “the essence” of state power, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.
The salient question in the case is whether the federal government has “the authority to regulate marriage,” the newspaper quoted Kennedy as saying during the proceedings.
Kennedy joined the court’s four liberal justices in questioning the constitutionality of the law, indicating that the panel could overturn DOMA in a 5-4 vote. Following Wednesday’s arguments, the respected Scotusblog website estimated the probability of the court scrapping the law at 80 percent.
The lawsuit heard Wednesday by the court was filed by 83-year-old Edith Windsor, who was slapped with a $363,000 tax bill for assets she inherited after her female spouse died in 2009.
The couple was legally wed in New York and Massachusetts, but because DOMA does not recognize same-sex marriage, the assets did not fall under the tax exemption granted to heterosexual couples in such situations.
The Supreme Court agreed in December to hear Windsor’s lawsuit challenging DOMA after her attorneys argued urgency in the case given her poor health and advanced age.
It was the second straight day that America’s top court heard arguments on same-sex marriage. On Tuesday, the court indicated in may not uphold California’s Proposition 8, a law banning same-sex marriage that a lower court later ruled unconstitutional.
Several members of the court questioned during Tuesday’s arguments whether it was the Supreme Court’s place to rule in the California case or whether it was best left to California to decide.
DOMA was signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, but earlier this month the former president said the measure should be overturned by the Supreme Court.
Several US federal courts have ruled that the law’s provision denying federal benefits to same-sex couples is unconstitutional.
US President Barack Obama’s administration said in 2011 that it also concluded the provision is unconstitutional and that it would not defend it in court.