Rich Vaughn IFLG Blog: Edit Windsor Brought Down DOMA Paving Way for Marriage Equality

Windsor’s Courageous Fight Ended Federal Discrimination Against Same-Sex Marriage

We at IFLG mourn the passing of Edith Windsor, the courageous woman whose demand that her government treat her and her marriage with fairness brought down the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and paved the way for marriage equality in the United States.

Windsor and Thea Spyer met at a Greenwich Village restaurant in the 1960s and would live together as romantic partners for 40 years, finally marrying in Toronto in 2007 as Spyer’s health declined. Following Spyer’s death in 2009, Windsor, recognized legally as Spyer’s widow by the state of New York, filed for the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. The IRS denied her claim under Section 3 of DOMA, which said that same-sex marriages were not considered marriages under federal law, even if those couples were considered legally married by their home states.

The U.S. Congress had passed DOMA in 1993, in a knee-jerk reaction when it seemed Hawaii might become the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage. Designed to offer conservative state leaders legal cover to avoid recognizing same-sex marriages performed legally in other states, DOMA trampled the time-honored legal principle, codified in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, of giving “full faith and credit” to the “public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state.”

Thanks to DOMA, Windsor was not considered to be a widow under federal law, and the IRS sent her a bill for $363,053 in estate taxes. In a 2013 NPR interview, she told Nina Totenberg, “If Thea was Theo, I would not have had to pay that… It's heartbreaking. It's just a terrible injustice, and I don't expect that from my country. I think it's a mistake that has to get corrected.”

“On a deeply personal level, I felt distressed and anguished that in the eyes of my own government, the woman I had loved and cared for and shared my life with was not my legal spouse, but was considered to be a stranger with no relationship to me,” she told CNN following the Supreme Court decision.

At age 80, Edie Windsor decided to fight back. She turned to several gay rights organizations to take her case; all declined, fearing it was premature to challenge DOMA in the existing political and social environment. Finally, she was referred to Roberta Kaplan, a partner at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, who agreed to represent Windsor pro bono. Kaplan had earlier unsuccessfully defended the plaintiffs in Hernandez v. Robles, which challenged New York’s same-sex marriage ban. She and Windsor were members of the same Jewish congregation. And, like Windsor and Spyer, she and her partner had married in Toronto, in 2005.

“I lucked out when Robbie Kaplan, a litigation partner at the law firm of Paul Weiss, walked into my life,” Windsor told CNN in 2013. “At a time when the gay organizations that I approached responded with, ‘It's the wrong time for the movement,’ Robbie Kaplan said -- as did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before her – ‘There is no wrong time’ to seek justice. She answered my plea, and took me on.”

On November 9, 2010, Kaplan’s firm, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. On February 23, 2011, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the federal government would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA’s Section 3. In June 2012, Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled that Section 3 was unconstitutional and ordered the U.S. government to issue Windsor a tax refund, with interest. The government appealed, and in October 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the earlier decision.

In December 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Kaplan and the other attorneys involved in the case made their oral arguments on March 27, 2013. On June 26, 2013, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared DOMA Section 3 to be unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority:

DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriage of others. No legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state ... sought to protect in personhood and in dignity.

That same day, the court issued an opinion in a second marriage equality case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, overturning Prop 8, California’s 2009 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Of course, the financial justice aspects of the Supreme Court DOMA ruling made a life-changing difference to Windsor and to all same-sex married couples. But it was never just about the money. As Windsor told NPR about the time the Supreme Court was considering whether to take the case:

“The fact is, marriage is this magic thing,” she said. “I mean, forget all the financial stuff—marriage... symbolizes commitment and love like nothing else in the world. And it's known all over the world… And I've asked everybody since who gets married after long-term relationships, 'Did it feel different the next day?' and the answer is always 'Yes, absolutely.'"

Windsor’s bravery and determination in the face of injustice makes her an American hero, and in the years following her court victory she continued to advocate for and inspire a new generation of LGBT activists. At the time, the LGBT and legal establishments were fearful she was pushing too far, too fast, risking political backlash, as had happened in California in 2009, when the State Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June, only to have voters pass Proposition 8 in November.

But, matched with an equally courageous attorney, it turns out, Edith Windsor was exactly in the right place at the right time to make legal history and better the lives of countless couples and families in the process.


Rich Vaughn
Richard Vaughn

Attorney Rich Vaughn is founder and principal of International Fertility Law Group, one of the world’s largest and best-known law firms focused exclusively on assisted reproductive technology, or ART, including in vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy, sperm donation or egg donation. Rich is co-author of the book “Developing A Successful Assisted Reproduction Technology Law Practice,” American Bar Association Publishing, 2017.

Peiya Wang
Paralegal (律师助理)

Peiya Wang joined IFLG as a paralegal in 2015, where she manages surrogacy, egg donation and parental establishment cases and provides translation services for many of IFLG’s international clients. Peiya received her bachelor’s degree from Beijing Technologies and Business University, where she majored in Marketing. She moved to the United States in 2012 to attend Northeast University in Boston, Massachusetts, receiving a Master of Science degree in Global Studies and International Affairs in 2014. Peiya moved to Los Angeles in 2015 and received her paralegal certification from UCLA Extension. When away from the office, Peiya is a dragon boat paddler and a ballroom dancer, where she favors Rumbas and Cha-chas. She is fluent in Mandarin and English.

Luis Sosa

Luis R. Sosa joined IFLG as a paralegal in 2016, where he enjoys pursuing his passion for family and reproductive law. While working toward his bachelor’s degree at Florida International University, Luis worked as a paralegal and legal assistant for family law litigation firms in Miami and Washington, D.C. As a paralegal and case manager for IFLG, Luis, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, manages surrogacy, egg donation and other reproductive law cases. In addition to spending time with husband Randy and dog Marty, Luis enjoys being outdoors and appreciating the arts.

Toni Hughes

After receiving her B.S. in Business Management, Toni joined IFLG to pursue her dream of working in the legal field. As a Paralegal with over 10 years of experience in the assisted reproduction technology field, Toni is our Managing Paralegal, responsible for training and managing our paralegal staff. From drafting legal documents to assisting our clients with post-birth matters, Toni embraces the challenge of learning something new in this field each day. Besides spending time with her son, Jordan, Toni enjoys exploring new things, cooking, spending time with family and friends, and serving as a Youth Advisor for “Next Generation.”

Miesha Cowart
Financial Coordinator

Miesha Cowart joined IFLG as a financial specialist in 2014 following a successful career in development and business finance. Miesha previously worked for 10 years in the construction industry as a controller and for 13 years as Development Coordinator for the non-profit U.S. Fund for UNICEF. In her free time, Miesha works with “Next Generation” at her church. “They are my heartbeats!” she says of the youth in her community.


Kim has over 25 years of experience in the legal field and has worked exclusively in surrogacy and assisted reproduction law since 1999. Kim is a senior case manager of surrogacy and egg donation cases, and is also responsible for managing parental establishment cases and interacting with IFLG’s Of Counsel attorneys across the country. With three children of her own, Kim understands the importance of family and finds working in this area of law a rewarding experience.

Rich Vaughn

Attorney Rich Vaughn combined his personal passion as a father of twin boys born via assisted reproductive technology (ART) with more than 20 years of experience in business and technology law to build International Fertility Law Group. Today IFLG is one of the most successful and best-known law firms in the world focused exclusively on fertility law, helping thousands of intended parents through empathetic listening, compassionate guidance, and unmatched legal expertise. As an advocate for reproductive freedom, Rich also contributes his knowledge and time to improving the understanding and practice of ART law, most recently as a founder of and speaker at the first Cambridge University International Surrogacy Symposium held in June 2019, as immediate past chair of the American Bar Association ART Committee, and as a popular presenter to law schools, faculty and advocacy organizations all over the world.

Elizabeth Tamayo

Elizabeth received her Bachelors of Science degree in Criminal Justice from California State University of Los Angeles. Shortly after graduating, she continued her education at the University of California, Los Angeles where she obtained her Paralegal certificate. Elizabeth is fluent in Spanish and has been in the legal field since 2009. She is excited to be a part of the IFLG Team helping families realize their dreams.

Sunny Chien

Sunny joined IFLG as a paralegal in 2017, where she manages surrogacy, egg donation and parental establishment cases for many of IFLG’s international clients. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from California State University of Los Angeles, where she graduated cum laude. Sunny is bilingual in English and Mandarin and has extensive experience as a legal assistant and paralegal at Los Angeles-area law firms. She is excited to be part of the IFLG team. In her spare time, Sunny enjoys spending time with her family and their dog, going to the beach, cooking, and being outdoors.

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Molly O'Brien

Fertility law attorney Molly O’Brien began working in the field of assisted reproduction technology (ART) in 2005, at an egg donation agency and a surrogacy agency where she became familiar with all aspects of in-vitro fertilization, egg donation and the financial aspects of surrogacy. Since becoming an attorney in 2011, Molly has drafted and negotiated surrogacy, egg donation, sperm donation embryo donation agreements for hundreds of her clients all over the world.