Maine's top attorney-to-be said Friday the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear appeals on same-sex-marriage laws can't undo the state's newly adopted allowance of gay marriage, but could possibly expand federal benefits to same-sex couples who marry in Maine.
Mainers last month voted to allow same-sex couples to marry; that law is scheduled to take effect on Dec. 29. But even though they'll be allowed to get a marriage license in Maine, same-sex couples will continue to be denied the same federal benefits that heterosexual married Maine couples enjoy, including Social Security and a multitude of federal tax laws, said Janet Mills, Maine's newly elected incoming attorney general.
Maine's new law could, in fact, play a role in oral arguments made by lawyers who appear before the U.S. Supreme Court in pointing out a trend favoring same-sex marriage among states "in terms of what community sentiment is across the country," Mills said.
If the nation's highest court were to decide against same-sex marriage, that ruling would have no bearing on Maine's new law, Mills said.
But if the high court were to find the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, that could trigger recognition of same-sex marriage on a federal level, which would give same-sex married couples equal tax breaks and Social Security benefits to heterosexual couples, Mills said.
"The impact of the court's decision may be widespread," she said. "In any event, the court will not, cannot, invalidate what the people of Maine voted to do."
Zachary Heiden, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation said hundreds of federal benefits that are conditioned upon one's marital status are currently denied same-sex couples who are legally married in states where same-sex marriage was legalized through court decisions, legislative enactment or referendums.
The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to hear the California and New York appeals cases in the spring and should decide them by the end of June, Heiden said.
Maine Attorney General William Schneider could not be reached for comment.