(RNN) – The highly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 are expected to be released Wednesday.
Thousands began assembling outside the Supreme Court Building in the morning to voice their opposition or support for the current laws.
United States v. Windsor takes to task the term "marriage" in DOMA. Hearings on the arguments for the two cases took place March 26 and 27.
Signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, DOMA says "the word ‘marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife," and the term "'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex."
A thin majority opposed the legislation at that time – 81 out of 535 members of Congress – but as a decision looms, even the man that signed it is asking for its repeal.
"As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution," Clinton said earlier this year.
Prop 8 enforces the same principle on the state level - banning marriage for same-sex couples. The decision was made in the voting booth but has been vocally challenged since its inception.
The state of California - along with Colorado, Illinois, Hawaii and New Jersey - allow legal civil unions. These states are some of the earliest in the U.S. to have such arrangements for same-sex couples.
The case of United States v. Windsor argues for equal protection of rights for couples legally married in states that recognize same-sex marriages. The case seeks to protect those couples if after marriage they reside in a state that "deprives same-sex couples who are lawfully married under the laws of their states (such as New York) of the equal protection of law, as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment."
There are 12 states where gay marriage is or will soon become legal: New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Iowa, Washington state and Minnesota, as well as Washington, DC.
All of these vary in how spousal support or broad domestic partnership rules apply despite their state's legislation, i.e., equal protection laws.
The rest of the United States' laws on gay marriage vary from either a county-to-county basis to statewide bans, with many states having longstanding bans and referendums on the books since the early to mid-1990s.
The nine Supreme Court justices have two major decisions to make in each case: they can either decide to rule or not to rule. Each step has specific implications for each case.
In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the court can make one of several decisions: dismiss the petition of Prop. 8 supporters for lack of appellate standing, uphold the proposition or three variations of striking the ruling down.
One decision could decide it all – the court could decide to declare that same-sex marriage is legal or illegal nationwide. Another decision the court could make is not making a decision at all, choosing to leave it up to the states as their issue to handle.
The justices, who have been described as "cautious and conservative," are unlikely to make a sweeping ruling that will have a lasting impact on women's and civil rights, said one expert.
"I think it's going to be an incremental move, whatever it is," Houston attorney Gary Poland told USA Today. "This court doesn't want to be in the position of making political decisions for the country."
The last public session of the nation's highest court is scheduled on June 24, the final day a decision could be made on these cases.
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