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Abigail Fisher, center, plaintiff in Fisher v University of Texas and Edward Blum, left, director of the Project on Fair Representation outside the U.S. Supreme Court.Abigail Fisher, center, plaintiff in Fisher v University of Texas and Edward Blum, left, director of the Project on Fair Representation outside the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

One year after a landmark constitutional decision on the nation’s new federal health care law, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 took historic steps in two civil rights cases that will define the Roberts Court for some time to come.

Believing that national opinion on gay marriage was moving in their direction, civil rights groups optimistically awaited the justices’ rulings in two same-sex marriage cases on the October 2012 docket. However, they viewed a major challenge to the Voting Rights Act with considerable anxiety because of the Roberts Court’s existing precedents on race and voting rights. Their feelings were justified on both counts.

In United States v. Windsor, a 5-4 majority led by Justice Anthony Ken­nedy struck down the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman in the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That definition, Kennedy said, injected inequality into every aspect of the U.S. Code. The definition, which affected rights and benefits in more than 1,000 federal laws, violated the equal protection guaranteed to legally married same-sex couples.

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