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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour with today's big announcement from the Supreme Court. For the first time, the justices have agreed to tackle the issue of same-sex marriage. And defying expectations, the justices said they will examine two cases. That presents the possibility that the court could decide all the basic issues surrounding same-sex marriage in one fell swoop. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has our story.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: As expected, the court said it will rule on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act - known as DOMA - a case that tests whether the federal government can deny federal benefits to legally married, same-sex couples, benefits that are automatically granted to heterosexual couples. Less expected was the court's decision to review California's ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8; a case that potentially could lead to a decision on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The California case involves a ban enacted by referendum in 2008. It was subsequently struck down by a federal appeals court on narrow grounds. Opponents of gay marriage then appealed to the Supreme Court, contending that the state is free to limit marriage to unions between a man and a woman. The justices said they would hear arguments on that question, but they also called for arguments as to whether gay marriage opponents have the right to be in court at all, since the state is no longer defending the ban.

The DOMA case is more limited because it involves only a federal law that refuses federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married. Nine states and the District of Columbia now permit same-sex marriage, but the federal government does not recognize those unions. Thus, a wide variety of spousal benefits that are accorded to heterosexual couples - under some 1,000 federal statutes and programs - are denied to legally married, same-sex couples.

The test case that the Supreme Court said it will review involves a New York couple, Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer. They'd been together for 42 years prior to their marriage in 2007. When Spyer died, however, the federal government, acting under DOMA, required Windsor to pay $363,000 in estate taxes that she would not have owed if her spouse had been of the opposite sex.

EDITH WINDSOR: I brought my case against the government because I couldn't believe that our government would charge me $350,000 because I was married to a woman, and not to a man.

TOTENBERG: Windsor won in the lower courts. Now normally, when a court says a federal statute is unconstitutional, the federal government appeals to the Supreme Court to challenge the outcome. But after initially defending DOMA in the courts, the Obama administration made a highly unusual U-turn and instead, urged the Supreme Court to strike down DOMA.

TOTENBERG: At that point, the House Republican leadership hired its own lawyer to defend the law so that when the case is argued - probably in March - it will be that lawyer, former Bush administration Solicitor General Paul Clement, who will be defending the statute while the Obama administration is urging the court to strike it down.

These twists and turns apparently have caused the justices some concern as to whether they have the jurisdiction to decide the case when the federal government no longer is defending the law as constitutional. So the court has also ordered the lawyers to present arguments as to whether the Republican congressional leadership has standing to defend the statute in place of the Obama administration.

If the GOP leadership does not, there would be no controversy to resolve and presumably, DOMA would be invalidated.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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