DOMA and Prop. 8 Teams Talk About Making History
Plaintiffs in the successful case to undo California’s same-sex marriage ban and an attorney from the landmark case that struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act spoke about the twin court victories during a recent appearance at Stanford University.
The discussion was a part of a three-day symposium about the future of marriage equality that took place October 10-12. The event brought together marriage equality activists, media and political pundits, and legal experts to explore same-sex marriage’s journey to the U.S. Supreme Court, the resulting legal victories, and pursuing marriage equality throughout the U.S.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA in United States v. Windsor. The justices also effectively ended Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban, when they denied proponents the right to defend it in Hollingsworth v. Perry.
Both plaintiff couples in the Perry case, spouses Sandy Stier and Kris Perry of Berkeley and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo of Los Angeles, and the key orchestrator of the lawsuit, Chad Griffin, appeared at the symposium.
Griffin is now president of the Human Rights Campaign, but in 2009 he formed the American Foundation for Equal Rights to bring the federal lawsuit against Prop 8.
Joining them were attorneys from the Prop 8 case, Jeremy Goldman of Boies, Schiller, and Flexner, and Theane Evangelis of Gibson Dunn, who explained the legal road and strategy to the Supreme Court.
Attorney Pamela Karlan, who was co-counsel for plaintiff Edith Windsor on the DOMA team and who is a law professor at Stanford Law School, described turning Windsor’s estate tax issue into a case about overturning DOMA.
Natalia Renta of OutLaw, Stanford’s LGBT legal student organization, rounded out the panel.
Gary Segura, a political science professor at Stanford University who served as an expert witness in the Prop 8 case, moderated the discussion.
There were no regrets among the plaintiffs.
"No. None, none," Windsor said via video from her attorney’s office in New York.
She told the audience that she felt so "sick, anguished, and deeply upset" by having to pay the IRS more than $600,000 and that she felt the U.S. government disrespected her late spouse of more than 40 years, Thea Spyer.
"I took it very seriously, but I loved the whole process," added the spunky 84-year-old lesbian.
She described her initial nervousness in general about the proponents of DOMA and Prop 8 and the power within the courts and politics. But that nervousness eased, giving way to a calm as she listened to their "insane" arguments and how "astoundingly terrible" they were in their comments against her and in general.
"I felt safe that this Constitution was going to take over at a point," it did, and she is glad she won not only for herself, but also for other LGBT people, she told the audience.
As the battle for marriage equality continues, Windsor encouraged young people to "keep pushing."
"I think that we don’t take it for granted," said Windsor about the rights LGBT people have gained. "I think that we should enjoy all of the possibilities and proceed to the next steps. There is still a lot of discrimination."
Katami and Stier echoed Windsor that they have no regrets as their spouses nodded in agreement.
Stier described the day that she and Perry were asked to join the case. Griffin had described the case as a "small lawsuit" for "administrative proceedings."
"We would be on paper. We wouldn’t have to do anything, but it had the potential to go big," said Stier, smiling and playfully poking fun at Griffin.
The pivotal moment for Katami was when Zarrillo sat him down to watch the National Organization of Marriage’s ad, "The Gathering Storm," he said. That was the moment when the two men became "accidental activists," producing a video response that went viral and landed them in the Prop 8 case, they said.
"We were just people who told a story we thought was profoundly ours, but was profoundly everyone’s," said Katami.
"They are the ones who carried the burden for all of us and we owe them a great deal of gratitude," said Griffin.
Angry about the passage of Prop 8, Griffin said he had to do something, so he launched AFER and began the search for the right legal team and plaintiffs. His search for attorneys led to one of the most unusual legal pairings in recent years - bringing on board the lawyers who had squared off against each other in Bush v. Gore - Theodore Olson and David Boies.
A friend suggested conservative attorney Olson after overhearing a lunchtime conversation among friends after the 2008 election. Griffin followed up. Within weeks he was attempting to maintain focus on what Olson was saying about his position on same-sex marriage and legal strategies as he spied photographs in his office of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and other conservatives that Griffin spent most of his life rallying against, he said.
"Something is wrong with this picture, ’Where am I?’" he said he asked himself that day during his top secret meeting in Olson’s Washington, D.C. office nearly five years ago.
"Ted Olson is personally a hero and professionally a hero to our community today," said Griffin.
The goal for the Prop 8 case wasn’t to head to the U.S. Supreme Court, although they sensed it had potential. The attorneys believed Prop 8 would be decided on paper and resolved as a summary judgment, Griffin said.