Goodridge lawyer discusses role in landmark case


Mary Bonauto at Harvard Law School on Tuesday

Mary Bonauto, chief legal counsel for plaintiffs in the Goodridge case, spoke at Harvard Law School on Tuesday about her role in the landmark decision where the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that homosexual couples were entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples when it came to marriage. Professor Carol Steiker moderated the discussion, calling Bonauto “the Thurgood Marshall” of the gay rights movement in her role as a strong advocate of gay rights.

Bonauto began the discussion by noting how far society has come in such a short time, saying that in the 1970s, the “idea of a man marrying a man was as ridiculous as a man getting pregnant.” Times have changed, first with Vermont opening the door to civil unions and more recently with Massachusetts recognizing gay marriages.

“Vermont absolutely had an influence, said Bonauto, expressing her view that it opened the door and led to gay marriage supporters wondering why Massachusetts didn’t follow suit. “People would come up to me and ask, ÔIf we could do this in Vermont, why can’t we do this in Massachusetts?'”

“It was the logical next step [to bring it to Massachusetts],” said Bonauto.

Bonauto discussed the general strategy of the plaintiffs in the Goodridge case, acknowledging that part of the strategy involved presenting the plaintiffs as regular, ordinary people who were simply seeking equal treatment under the law. “There is no better way of framing the issue than to put real people forth and show what’s at stake,” said Bonauto.

To ensure that the plaintiffs would be able to withstand the intense scrutiny to which they would be subjected, Bonauto said she posed questions similar to what she expected the media would ask and visited the home each plaintiff to talk to thim or her personally. “Their job as plaintiffs was to be themselves,” said Bonauto.

“I understand that this is a very tough separation of powers issue,” said Bonauto, referring to criticism that the issue should have been left to the legislature to handle. “Yes, the legislature should fix this, but they did not.”

Though some critics have attacked Bonauto and the plaintiffs she represented for causing a national backlash against gay marriage, Bonauto is quick to point out that laws against gay marriage are not a new development. “Thirty-seven states had laws prior to Goodridge [outlawing gay marriage],” said Bonauto.

Bonauto acknowledged that it wasn’t always easy, but that generally the support the plaintiffs received outweighed any hostile comments. “There was [a sense of] some wider culture that supported this,” said Bonauto, pointing to an outpouring of support by the public and in filings with the court. “Professor [Laurence] Tribe, among others, submitted an amicus brief,” said Bonauto.

Though the Massachusetts legislature has begun the process of amending the state constitution to outlaw gay marriage and enact civil unions in its place, Bonauto is hopeful that the Goodridge ruling will stand, as some legislators seem to be changing their minds. At least two Massachusetts representatives who opposed gay marriage lost their seats during the primary elections.

Ultimately, Bonauto believes that the positive stories resulting from Goodridge may influence the legislature to drop the amendment. “There has been an outbreak of happiness since May 17,” said Bonauto. “It’s hard to argue with.”

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