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TODAY   |  March 27, 2013

Supreme Court to hear arguments in DOMA showdown

Just a day after hearing both sides of the battle over California’s Proposition 8, Supreme Court justices will consider whether the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, violates states’ rights. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>> on to weightier matters, and the question before the supreme court this morning. can the government deny benefits to same-sex couples who are married in states where it is legal?

>> the historic arguments are sparking some intense debate and passion on both sides. at one point on tuesday, police had to separate demonstrators. nbc's justice correspondent, pete williams , is outside the court this morning. pete, good morning to you.

>> reporter: matt, good morning on a blustery morning here. it's a lawyer for house republicans who will be here at the court today to carry on the fight to keep the defense of marriage act because the obama administration no longer defends it. the question -- does it violate states' rights. emotions are running high with demonstrations on both sides of the issue outside the court. [ chants ]

>> reporter: at the center of the storm, an 83-year-old former computer programmer from new york. edie windsor.

>> this is one of my favorite pictures.

>> reporter: doma , the defense of marriage act , barred her from recognizing her marriage to another woman. it sent her a $300,000 inheritance tax bill when her spouse died.

>> i couldn't believe that they were making a stranger of this person i lived with and loved for 43-something years.

>> reporter: it's been 17 years since a strong majority in congress passed doma , defining marriage as "only a legal union between one man and one woman." nine states now permit same-sex marriage along with washington, d.c. 38 others ban it either by law or constitutional amendment . on tuesday, the court took up proposition 8 which ended same-sex marriage in california. supporters say it makes sense to limit marriage because only opposite-sex couples can produce children. but justice elena kagan asked would couples over 55 not be allowed to marry sneerth.

>> i can just assure you if both the woman and the man are over the age of 55, there are not a lot of children coming out of that marriage.

>> reporter: conservatives worry about going too fast.

>> you want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cell phones or the internet?

>> reporter: so while the prop 8 case seems unlikely to produce a sweeping ruling on gay rights , the doma case may result in a clearer decision on who gets to define marriage, the federal government or the state. savannah?

>> to hear the oral arguments yesterday, pete, it seemed at least some of the justices were questioning whether they should have take then case at all.

>> reporter: right. and i think especially it was justice anthony kennedy who said, "you're asking us to go into uncharted waters ." he said, "i wonder if the supreme court should have even taken this case now." and if that's what the supreme court does, savannah, what it would probably do is find some way to make a decision that results only in a change that would allow a marriage to resume in california but would have no nationwide effect.

>> all right. pete williams at the court again for us this morning. thank you.