Edith Windsor, SCOTUS Litigant And Marriage Equality Icon, Dies At 88

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Edith Windsor, lead litigant in the 2013 Supreme Court case which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), died Tuesday in Manhattan at the age of 88.

The deceased’s second wife, Judith Kasen-Windsor, confirmed Windsor’s death to The New York Times, but did not specify a cause.

Like many gays and lesbians of her time, Windsor became active in politics after the riots at the Stonewall Inn, a series of demonstrations in New York’s Greenwich Village prompted by a police raid of the Inn, one of Manhattan’s few gay bars.

“From that day on, I had this incredible gratitude,” Windsor told New York University’s alumni magazine of the protests in 2011. “They changed my life. They changed my life forever.”

During that period she met Thea Spyer, a female psychologist who would become her lifelong companion. Windsor and Spyer were among the first to register for New York City’s domestic partnership registry, which extended certain benefits to same-sex couples. They married in Canada in 2007. The pair wore broaches in lieu of wedding rings, which would become a trademark of the LGBT rights movement during the litigation which propelled Windsor to prominence.

Spyer’s death in 2009 set off a controversy which reached the Supreme Court in 2013. Though their marriage was recognized in New York state, the 1996 DOMA proscribed a federal definition of marriage that excluded same-sex couples. Though Windsor and Spyer were married, and Windsor was the executor of Spyer’s estate, the federal government imposed a $363,000 estate tax.

Windsor sued the federal government, arguing that DOMA was unconstitutional. Four years later, the case reached the high court. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court sided with Windsor and struck down DOMA as violative of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

“DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect,” Kennedy wrote. “By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.”

“When New York adopted a law to permit same-sex marriage,” he wrote, “it sought to eliminate inequality; but DOMA frustrates that objective through a system-wide enactment with no identified connection to any particular area of federal law. DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code.”

The decision announced important jurisprudential principles on which the Court relied just two years later in Obergefell v. Hodges, where the justices established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

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