(USATODAY.com) - The Supreme Court turns Wednesday from the threshold issue of sanctioning same-sex marriage to one with financial repercussions: Can the federal government deny benefits to those already married?
At issue is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed by President Clinton that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. (Clinton has said he has changed his mind about the law.) At the time of its passage, no states had legalized gay marriage, but now nine states and the District of Columbia have done so - and legally wed gay couples are denied federal benefits.
The case accepted by the court from among several it could have taken features Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old New York widow who married her partner of four decades, Thea Spyer, in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was socked with a $363,000 estate tax bill that she would have avoided if Thea had been "Theo."
Now in failing health but a hero within the gay rights community, Windsor is expected to be in court today to hear her lawyer present her case. And not only her lawyer - the federal government also takes her side, which is both a benefit and a potential curse.
As was the case Tuesday, the unusual array of plaintiffs and respondents presents the court with some initial questions to hash out. The federal government is no longer defending its own law and has joined forces with its opponents. So is there any dispute left? And can the House Republican leadership, which has taken up the defense of DOMA, replace the Obama administration in court?
Those questions will be debated for nearly an hour before the two sides get to the merits of the case. It's possible the justices ultimately will sidestep a far-reaching decision when they issue their ruling, most likely in late June.
The justices could have avoided taking the Proposition 8 case, but they were forced to tackle DOMA because it had been declared unconstitutional in several lower courts. They chose from among overlapping cases, including challenges to the law from New England, New York and California.
The plaintiffs in those cases - married same-sex couples, widows and widowers in states where gay marriage is or previously was legal - are seeking the same federal benefits accorded opposite-sex couples.