by Julie Nice, Herbst Foundation Professor of Law and Dean’s Circle Scholar, University of San Francisco School of Law
*This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.
Whatever Justice Kennedy decides on the question of whether states can ban same-sex marriage, the name Obergefell will mark this landmark moment in constitutional history. That’s fitting because the remarkable story of undying love between James Obergefell and his late husband, John Arthur, is truly what the battle for marriage equality is about.
The Obergefell story is about two men determined to marry before one of them succumbed to the ruthless disease that was taking his life. It’s a story about a medical plane transporting two men to a wedding on a tarmac in a state that would recognize their same-sex marriage. It’s a story about the pain of the indignity suffered when their home state refused to recognize their love and their marriage on that ultimate of legal documents, the death certificate. It’s a story about seeking “that same ennoblement” bestowed on heterosexual couples.
It’s also a story all-too-familiar within my own family. My sister Suzanne Nice and her partner, Maureen Martin, devoted themselves to the life they built together and sustained for over thirty years. Through the beauty of their quiet harmony, they provided an inspiring model of loving commitment to all of us in their circle of family and friends. Maureen died early in 2014, just months before Illinois began recognizing same-sex marriage.
When Maureen’s death suddenly appeared imminent, we furiously attempted to obtain a medical exemption from Cook County officials to authorize their marriage ahead of the announced date upon which Illinois would begin recognizing same-sex marriages. But the bureaucratic requirements were impossible to meet given Maureen’s deteriorating condition, and time ran out far too quickly. I sat in the funeral home with Suzanne, alongside Maureen’s brother and sister, barely able to endure bearing witness to my sister’s pain as she was forced to acquiesce to a death certificate listing Maureen as single and never married.
As my mind listened to the Justices sparring with the lawyers about the constitutionality of denying same-sex marriage, my heart was with Suzanne and Maureen, James and John, and the countless other devoted same-sex couples who have suffered a similar denial of dignity.