TODAY   |  March 28, 2013

DOMA challengers optimistic about outcome

Same-sex marriage supporters are optimistic this morning about the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act based on what Supreme Court justices said in court on Wednesday. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>>> we have a better idea of the direction the supreme court justices may lean when it comes to same-sex marriage. this after two days of historic argument at the highest court . pete williams , good morning again to you.

>> reporter: savannah, good morning. based on what the justices said, a majority of them seem prepared to strike down the defensive marriage act passed by strong majorities in congress 17 years ago. it blocks the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in the states that allow them. supporters of same-sex marriage are optimistic this morning based on what the justices say about a lawsuit brought by 83-year-old edie windsor of new york. she challenged doma when the federal government refused to recognize her marriage to another woman and slapped her with a huge inheritance tax bill.

>> humbled. i'm very humbled.

>> reporter: some of the court's conservatives question her lawyer's claim that the country has a different attitude now about same-sex marriage.

>> why are you so confident in that judgment? how many states permit gay couples to marry?

>> today? nine, your honor.

>> nine. and so there's been this sea change between now and 1996 ?

>> reporter: but the court's liberal says doma hurts same-sex couples. justice ginsburg says it creates skim milk marriages.

>> for the federal government to say no joint return, no marital deduction, no social security benefits. your spouse is very sick, but you can't get leave. one might well ask, what kind of marriage is this?

>> reporter: and justice kennedy , the likely pivotal vote said the states traditionally define what it means to be married.

>> i think it is. the question is whether or not the federal government under our federalism scheme has the authority to regulate marriage.

>> reporter: if the court bases its ruling on who gets to define marriage, then it probably won't be a sweeping ruling on gay rights , but striking down doma would be a big victory for same-sex couples.