Defeating DOMA With Roberta Kaplan

Marriage maven Max Rettig dives into DOMA with Columbia Law adjunct professor and prominent lawyer Roberta Kaplan, hero of marriage equality for everyone.

roberta-kaplan“On the long road towards equal rights in this country, there are few milestones as significant as the decision in United States v. Windsor,” said JTS Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary in his introduction to last night’s event, “Defeating DOMA: The Changing Nature of Equality Under the U.S. Constitution.” In 2004, Gary continued, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state or commonwealth to legally recognize same-sex marriage. In 2013, when U.S. v. Windsor was decided, only 12 states allowed same-sex marriage, but following the decision, 25 more states joined. Before formally welcoming the night’s speaker to the podium, he shared a joke: “Among the honors bestowed upon Roberta Kaplan, and there are many, the one she will cherish the most is the honorary degree JTS will give her during commencement this May.”

Roberta Kaplan began by providing the context for the Supreme Court case. Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer met in New York in the early 1960s and, while in Israel in 1967, Thea pulled over to the side of a road and proposed to Edie. As Kaplan put it, this was a bold act: The couple “had the self-esteem, dignity, courage and foresight to even imagine getting engaged.” In 2007, with New York still not hospitable to same-sex marriages (a case that Kaplan herself lost), the couple married in Toronto. In 2009, Thea Spyer died of multiple sclerosis after dealing with the neurodegenerative disease for many years. She left Edie with her entire New York apartment, which Kaplan says had appreciated in value into the millions of dollars.

Because the marriage was not legally recognized in the U.S. under DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law in 1996 by Pres. Clinton), Edie got hit with a hefty estate tax, one that she would not have had to pay if she was in a legally recognized marriage—with a man. Edie and Kaplan went to the same synagogue in New York, so it was natural that she went to Kaplan to represent her after being rebuffed by several gay rights groups. Kaplan accepted, and the case soon went to trial.

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