Obergefell shares personal take on Supreme Court marriage case

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Speaking to a room full of predominantly law students and lawyers, Jim Obergefell offered a legal perspective often left out of a legal education: the social and emotional experience of a plaintiff. Obergefell is the named plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges, the June 2015 landmark Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.

The case combined six District Court cases grappling with both the right to marry and the right for recognition of marriages. Obergefell’s District Court case fought for recognition of his Maryland marriage to his late husband, John.

Jim Obergefell

Jim Obergefell

The couple married in 2013, weeks after the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down and in the midst of John’s battle with ALS.

United States v. Windsor “is why we got married. When the news came out, I simply leaned over, kissed John and said, ‘Let’s get married,’” Obergefell said. “We weren’t thinking about court cases. We simply wanted to get married and say ‘I do.’”

At the time, considering the broad legal or political implications of their marriage was too painful.

“Our high school government classes kicked in and we knew it could end up in the Supreme Court,” Obergefell said. “But I wasn’t thinking about the broader significance; I was thinking day by day. Otherwise meant thinking about John’s death.”

In October 2013, John passed away after his fight with ALS. In the same year, a series of Circuit Court cases struck down state DOMA laws, major successes in the fight for equal rights. But the 6th Circuit, which covers Obergefell’s home state of Ohio, broke the streak. The federal appeals court upheld bans on same-sex marriage in November 2014.

Obergefell quit his job as an IT consultant in 2013, traveled for a year following John’s death and returned to Ohio to obtain his real estate license. But Obergefell never listed nor sold a house. Instead, he became a public face for same-sex marriage. By March 2015, he was focused full time on the legal fight for gay rights.

“Being involved in this and fighting for this helped my grieving process,” Obergefell said. “By the time the June decision came around, I was in a much healthier grieving place.”

Being a named plaintiff in a Supreme Court case does not guarantee you a seat on decision day, Obergefell said. Because the court does not announce which decisions will be delivered on which days, he waited in line with hundreds of others in the morning on five decision days. Then, on June 26, Chief Justice John Roberts announced the case number and began reading the opinion.

“I was sitting between friends and I realized that we may have won,” Obergefell said. “I grabbed the hands of my friends and when it sunk in that we won, I broke into tears.”

After the majority 5-4 decision, Roberts read his dissent, the first time a chief justice has ever orally presented a dissenting opinion.

“I completely ignored him. I sat there thinking ‘blah blah blah,’” Obergefell said. “I was ready to celebrate.”

Despite the win, Obergefell said there is still much to do for the LGBT community. He called for further same-sex protections in the workplace and improved gender protections for the transgender community.

Obergefell pointed to the ruling by Judge Tim Black in the federal District Court. The first line of his 2013 opinion that deemed Ohio’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional begins, “This is not a complicated case.”

“[Judge Black] brought it back to what matters,” Obergefell said. “It’s not just a legal case. It’s about people, people and their stories.”

Obergefell will speak again from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in Alumni Hall of the Indiana Memorial Union. The talk is free and open to the public. Both events are sponsored by Union Board, the Maurer School of Law and the IU GLBT Alumni Association.

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