Op-ed: Mary Bonauto Is the Supreme Court Hero We Need and Deserve

Op-ed: Mary Bonauto Is the Supreme Court Hero We Need and Deserve

The freedom to marry is back at the Supreme Court, our momentum is irrefutable, and I couldn’t be prouder of the team of attorneys representing our movement on the marriage cases that the Supreme Court is now weighing. Local private attorneys, seasoned Supreme Court litigators, and the familiar champions from our movement’s indispensable legal arm — the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights — have done an extraordinary job in navigating the lower courts, banging out persuasive briefs making every conceivable and needed argument to the justices, and delivering, with Freedom to Marry’s assistance, an impressive cascade of friend-of-the-court briefs presenting evidence and manifesting support. Together, as planned, we are making a case to the court as compelling as the transformative case we’ve already made in the court of public opinion.

Now our advocates have smartly chosen to cap our movement’s epic collective presentation by choosing two terrific lawyers to handle the oral argument on April 28, alongside the U.S. solicitor general. Arguing that states must equally respect the out-of-state marriages that same-sex couples celebrate will be experienced Supreme Court litigator Douglas Hallward-Driemeier of Ropes & Gray. And arguing the core question of whether states may deny loving and committed couples the freedom to marry is Mary L. Bonauto of GLAD, a movement hero and my dear friend.

There is no one more fitting to be standing before the court on behalf of all of us than Mary. We couldn’t be in better hands.

For 25 years, Mary has been a star lawyer at GLAD and for our movement. She has talked to thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and has a deep and wise understanding of the discrimination we face, our needs, and our dreams.

Mary brought, argued, and won the historic Goodridge case in Massachusetts that led to the first state with the freedom to marry and the first same-sex couples marrying in the United States. It was Mary who first made a marriage win stick. Before that, Mary played a central role in winning civil unions in Vermont. Mary and her Vermont co-counsel grasped the need for sustained public education and organizing to set the stage for success in litigation. And it was Mary who spearheaded the litigation strategy that brought down the central part of the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act, racking up the first successful legal challenges to DOMA. Without Mary, there would not have been our movement’s 2013 victory in Windsor v. United States.

Mary has rightly been acclaimed a giant, a superstar, and even a genius; she even won a MacArthur award last year.

But when I think of Mary, what comes to mind are a flood of memories over 25 years of friendship and working hand in glove; reflecting on what lies behind these extraordinary accomplishments.

Mary and I became fast friends literally the first day we met 25 years ago, at Mary’s first attendance at the civil rights litigators’ roundtable. Back in the early days of those pivotal strategy meetings, I was a minority, often the lone voice advocating taking up the freedom to marry. Mary joined the fight with drive, and I knew that in her, I had a kindred spirit who would help get marriage squarely on the movement’s agenda.

I remember the many phone calls. Wrestling over when to open a “second front” in Vermont alongside Hawaii, and then, later, how to handle the Vermont Supreme Court’s ruling that paved the way to civil unions, though not yet marriage. Pressing together for the Maine campaign to embrace the full-throttle marriage messaging that previous ballot battles had feared to employ. Catching Mary as she was driving and I was in my office when the Goodridge opinion popped up, and getting to be the one who told her it was a win. Encouraging her to take on the pressure of representing us all before the Supreme Court now.

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Above left: Bonuato and Wolfson at Wolson's wedding in 2011. Above right: Wolfson and Bonuato (front) in the 1990s.

I remember stumping together in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, etc. — and so many meetings and speeches to make the case back in the 1990s and early 2000s, working for that first freedom to marry breakthrough. Brainstorming over how to push beyond civil unions to marriage itself. Debating the right time to move forward on the challenge to DOMA that Mary had teed up. Watching tiny Mary lug giant briefcases of supporting materials to presentations that she obviously could do (and had done a million times) by heart.

I remember the personal times together. Mary crashing on my couch and me on hers when we found ourselves in each other’s cities during conferences and meetings around the Hawaii and Vermont cases and DOMA battles. Sharing our coming-out stories, the frustrations of the internal movement divides, the best ways to frame our best case. Taking her kids kite-flying on one special visit to their home. Seeing Mary’s beautiful smile as I looked out on the friends and family gathered for my wedding.

Through all of this, over so many years, I’ve gotten to know and cherish and count on Mary’s fierce dedication and thoroughness, her thrumming with intensity, integrity, and intelligence. Her far-sightedness and close attention to detail. Her kindness and her doggedness. Her brilliance as an advocate and beauty as a wife, mother, colleague, and friend.

When Mary stands before the Supreme Court, she will not only be able to skillfully answer the justices’ questions, she will herself embody our answer. We are strong and good. We are part of families and we build them. We love, we contribute, we dream. We have made the case, and we deserve the liberty and justice for all that America promises. It’s time for equal protection under the laws for all. It’s time for the freedom to marry.


EVAN WOLFSON is founder and president of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide.

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