High court hears case on federal benefits for gays

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court's hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act has ended after nearly two hours.

The Supreme Court is indicating it could strike down the federal law that prevents legally married gay couples from receiving a range of federal benefits for married people.

In a landmark debate over gay marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative but often a decisive vote, has expressed concern about the impact of a federal law that prevents married gay couples from receiving a range of benefits afforded straight married Americans.

Kennedy's comment came as other conservative justices on the court seemed skeptical about whether they should even proceed with the case over a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act.

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A section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act says marriage may only be a relationship between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law, regardless of state laws that allow same-sex marriage.

Lower federal courts have struck down the measure. The justices, in a scheduled argument Wednesday, will consider whether to follow suit.

Wednesday's challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act involves an 83-year-old New York woman. She sued to fight a federal estate tax bill of $363,000 after her partner of 44 years died in 2009.

Edith Windsor had married Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007 after doctors told them that Spyer wouldn't live much longer. Spyer had suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. She left everything she had to Windsor.

IN THE VIDEO PLAYER: Edith Windsor expresses her thoughts on Wednesday's hearing.

There is no dispute that if Windsor had been married to a man, her estate tax bill would have been zero.

A federal appeals court in New York agreed with a district judge that the Defense of Marriage Act had deprived Windsor of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law, because she had to pay a tax that she wouldn't have had to pay if she'd been married to a man instead of a woman.

This case, like the one that was heard yesterday involving California's ban on same-sex marriage, could end without a definitive ruling from the high court. One issue is whether the House Republican leadership can defend the law in court after the administration decided not to.

If the Supreme Court finds that it doesn't have the authority to hear the case, Windsor probably would still get her refund because she won in the lower courts. But there would be no definitive decision about the Defense of Marriage Act from the Supreme Court, and it would remain on the books.

The Defense of Marriage Act argument follows Tuesday's case over California's ban on same-sex marriage, a case in which the justices indicated they might avoid a major national ruling on whether America's gays and lesbians have a right to marry.

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