Investigative journalist Jo Becker spent four years embedded with the plaintiffs’ litigation team in Hollingsworth v. Perry, also known as the Prop 8 case. After the Supreme Court ruled on the case, she published Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, which provides rare insight into the privileged strategy discussions and work product materials of the attorneys.
In Lessons for Law Reform Litigators, Alan B. Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law and Professional Lecturer in Law at George Washington University Law School, uses Becker’s account to extract lessons in strategy for attorneys who seek to institute social change through the courts.
Morrison’s paper, published by The Green Bag, traces the evolution of the famous case, as told by Becker, and draws out pearls of wisdom as it goes. For example, after Prop 8 was struck down by the District Court, California’s governor and attorney general chose no longer to defend the discriminatory law. However, this created a problem for the Prop 8 plaintiffs who thought they could win at the Supreme Court. Absent an appeal from the state, and with no new same-sex marriages having taken place, the plaintiffs had a standing problem that threatened to impede the progression of the case through the courts and deny them the broad ruling they sought. The lesson? Seemingly good news can be bad news for litigators seeking sweeping reforms to the law.
Morrison, a co-faculty advisor of the ACS Student Chapter at GW Law, also discusses the importance of District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision to hold a trial as opposed to resolving the case—in which no facts were disputed—through summary judgment. He explains that the trial not only allowed the plaintiffs to tell their personal stories, thereby educating the public and influencing public opinion, but also made it impossible for the defense to find an expert who was willing to testify in open court that same-sex marriage harms opposite-sex marriage. The lesson? While discovery can be used to expand upon the facts of a case, there is no substitute for the testimony of real, live witnesses.
Morrison’s paper is not a book review, nor is it a law review article. Instead, Morrison, a co-founder and director for 25 years of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, uses the story of one of the greatest legal undertakings in recent history to provide tips and advice on litigation strategy. For public interest attorneys, or anyone interested in taking on far-reaching public interest cases, it is worth a read.