Apr 1 2013

 

 

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If there is a "Godmother' of the DOMA case before the United States Supreme Court it would have to be New England's Mary Bonauto. The legal genius who lives in Portland, Maine, made this her case from day one. She is the type of person we could find sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States someday.

The New York Times recently profiled this amazing woman and here are some excerpts:

“No gay person in this country would be married without Mary Bonauto,” said Roberta Kaplan, who went before the justices on Wednesday to argue one of the cases.

As the top civil rights lawyer for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD, based in Boston, Ms. Bonauto has spent more than a decade plotting a careful strategy to advance gay marriage rights. She prompted Vermont to create civil unions in 2000, won the 2003 case that made Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage and last year persuaded a federal appeals court that the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to gay couples, is unconstitutional.

Yet in a quirk of fate, Ms. Bonauto watched her life’s work this week from the court’s spectator seats.

The justices considered a Defense of Marriage Act case on Wednesday, but it was not Ms. Bonauto’s, which she argued and won before the federal appeals court in Boston but which Justice Elena Kagan has acknowledged discussing when she was President Obama’s solicitor general. Instead the court took up a similar case, Ms. Kaplan’s from New York, presumably so Justice Kagan would not have to recuse herself.

“Am I disappointed?” Ms. Bonauto asked last week in her home here. “There is an element of disappointment, but I’m also incredibly excited. I feel like after all these years, you’re getting a hearing — a fair hearing — from the highest court in the land.”

At 51, Ms. Bonauto is serious and unassuming. “She is not going to set a room on fire,” said Dean Hara, a plaintiff in Ms. Bonauto’s Defense of Marriage Act case. “But when she is arguing, she is really somebody to listen to.”

Even her opponents offer kind words, saying they appreciate her civil tone.

“She has always been the consummate professional, very courteous and gentle,” said Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute, even as he said her courtroom victories had “degraded the value of marriage.”

Ms. Bonauto works mostly from her home in this seaport city, where she and her wife, Professor Jennifer Wriggins of the University of Maine’s law school, are raising their 11-year-old twin daughters. Last year, the couple made the list of “The Most Powerful Lesbian Moms in America,” published by the Web site mombian.com. But Ms. Bonauto is too busy juggling legal briefs, homework and piano lessons to see herself as a woman making history.

“That’s not how we experience our lives,” she said.

Ms. Bonauto would be the first to say she builds on the work of others. As early as the 1970s, gay couples began suing for the right to marry, inspired by the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down state laws banning interracial marriage. In 1983, a young Harvard law student named Evan Wolfson wrote his third-year thesis on why gays should be free to marry.

Mr. Wolfson was eventually hired by Lambda Legal, the gay advocacy group, where he joined what he called “a very small little network of people who at that time were dedicated to toppling the so-called sodomy laws” that criminalized homosexual sex. Among them was Ms. Bonauto.

The daughter of a pharmacist and a preschool teacher from Newburgh, N.Y., she had come out, with some difficulty, while an undergraduate at Hamilton College. There, Ms. Bonauto was harassed over her sexual orientation, which she said contributed to her desire to “make life better” for others.

By 1990, with a law degree from Northeastern University, she was working for GLAD in Boston. She had been there less than a week when a gay couple approached her with the idea of suing to get married. She said no, the timing was not right.

“I would have cases of somebody who goes to a Dunkin’ Donuts and the wait person realizes it was a gay person and goes nuts,” Ms. Bonauto recalled. How could she pursue a seeming luxury like marriage, she reasoned, when gay people were being discriminated against in housing, employment and adoption and being harassed by the police?

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Once she had established a right to marriage, Ms. Bonauto went after the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied legally married gay couples the federal benefits that straight couples could have. Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman, who is openly gay, said the move had sealed Ms. Bonauto’s reputation as a “first-rate lawyer and a first-rate strategist” who built on one victory after another.

“She’s our Thurgood Marshall,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court justice who made history fighting racial discrimination.

Ms. Bonauto was at first skeptical of the other gay marriage case before the court, the challenge to Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. She feared the court was not ready to grant gay couples a broad constitutional right to marry. But public opinion has shifted so drastically since the case was filed in 2009, Ms. Bonauto said last week, she now believes the justices can find a way to “issue a marriage decision that the country would embrace.” She has witnessed that shift at home; last year, Maine became the first state where voters approved same-sex marriage, reversing a decision from 2009.

“The things that scared people three years ago don’t scare people now,” Ms. Bonauto said.

In the run-up to Wednesday’s hearing, Ms. Bonauto focused on helping Ms. Kaplan prepare. She coordinated “friend of the court” amicus briefs, and she arrived in Washington early to participate in moot court briefings.

Ms. Kaplan said it “makes me crazy” that people do not know Ms. Bonauto’s work. Like Mr. Frank, she drew an analogy to Justice Marshall.

“She conceived of a strategy just like him, over a long number of years, and then implemented it,” Ms. Kaplan said. “It was strategically brilliant, and she succeeded. No one else can say that.”