WASHINGTON — A dozen years ago, a lawyer at a small Boston-based legal group was going to ask a state's top court to do what no court had ever done before: grant same-sex couples the right to marry.
"Before the argument, I went up to this … law library that I used to go to all the time," Mary Bonauto told BuzzFeed News in 2013 about that day. "I just went in there and I was just trying to steel myself, thinking, 'Mary, you know, you are right. You're right. This is correct. You are on the right side here.'"
Bonauto, with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), won that argument before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in a 4–3 decision that came down in November of 2003. The next spring, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to allow same-sex couples to marry.
Now, Bonauto is going to try and finish the job. Going before the nation's top court, she will ask the justices to declare that no state, under the U.S. Constitution, can ban same-sex couples from marrying.
The Supreme Court is due to take up the cases of same-sex couples, some of their children, and two widowers from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee at 10 a.m. on Tuesday — and Bonauto will be taking the case to the Supreme Court justices in a country far different from the one she lived in when she made her case to the Massachusetts justices.
Then, she was seeking a novel ruling that almost all courts and, in some instances, voters had rejected repeatedly. Now, same-sex couples are able to marry in 37 states, and a solid majority of the nation's voters also support marriage equality.
More than that, Bonauto and the plaintiffs from the four states come to the justices with support from a powerful ally: the federal government, on behalf of the United States.
When Bonauto finishes about 30 minutes of arguments, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. will have 15 minutes to make the Obama administration's case that "[t]he bans cannot be reconciled with the fundamental constitutional guarantee of 'equal protection of the laws.'"
And while Verrilli's arguments themselves certainly will matter to the justices, his merely standing at the podium symbolizes how much the ground has shifted on the marriage question in recent years.
When President Obama came into office, he opposed marriage rights for same-sex couples. The administration was defending the Defense of Marriage Act against legal challenges. And same-sex couples could only marry in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
On Monday night, at a Freedom to Marry reception for marriage case plaintiffs throughout time, the group's president, Evan Wolfson, introduced White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who made a special appearance to toast the plaintiffs and lawyers and their work.
"On behalf of the millions of people around this country — and around the world — that your leadership symbolizes, thank you, a round of applause, to every plaintiff," Jarrett told the crowd. "The world will be watching tomorrow. I will be there tomorrow."
Talking with BuzzFeed News at the reception, Jarrett said that she believed Obama's so-called evolution on the issue in 2012 "help[ed] accelerate change," but motioned around the room at the dozens and dozens of plaintiffs and lawyers — including Wolfson, whose current role developed out of his leadership in the famous 1990s Hawaii case that resulted in the first court win on marriage equality — saying that it is "so important that [they] get the credit that they deserve," as well.
"The arc of the moral universe bent a little faster than even we thought it would," Jarrett said. "But we still have a little ways to go. We have to win this case tomorrow."
Bonauto and Verrilli — joined by a third lawyer, Doug Hallward-Driemeier — will make their case on Tuesday.
And then the nation will wait for the justices' decision.
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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