04.28.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the Supreme Court’s Oral Arguments for the Marriage Equality Cases

This morning, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the marriage equality cases.  The legal principle at stake is whether the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution protects marriages between individuals of the same sex.  But at heart, these cases represent something more fundamental.  They are about the right of every American to marry the person they love and to have their relationships treated with the respect and dignity to which every American is entitled.

I am proud that my home state of Vermont has embraced love, equality, and freedom in its active and leading role on marriage equality.  In 2000, Vermont was the first in the Nation to provide for civil unions.  As the years went by, Vermont came to see that civil unions were insufficient to provide the protections all American couples are entitled to, and in 2009, the Vermont legislature on a bipartisan vote was the first State legislature to enact marriage equality into law.  Vermont, which has led by example, is now one of 37 states and the District of Columbia that recognizes marriage equality. 

While the arguments in the cases today analyzed legal principles and precedent, we should remember that they are ultimately about love and recognizing the extraordinary commitment between two people.  Jim Obergefell had been with his partner, John Arthur, for over 20 years.  They wanted to marry, but the marriage laws in their home state of Ohio would not allow it.  Bedridden and incapacitated with ALS, John could neither drive nor fly commercially to get married in another state.  It took the generosity of friends and family, along with the kindness of co-workers and others, to cover the cost of a $12,700 chartered, medically equipped private plane. 

After more than 20 years together, Jim and John finally married during a seven-and-a-half minute ceremony in an airplane at a Baltimore airport.  Upon their return to Ohio, the state refused to recognize their marriage.  And John passed away just a few months later.  Jim, now a widower, should not have to live in a state like Vermont to be able to have his 20-year relationship validated and recognized by the state.  He should not have had to fly to another state to say his vows and pledge his commitment to his partner.  Jim’s current fight – and our current fight – is to show that relationships like his should be treated with the same respect and dignity that has been accorded to all other Americans.  It is to persuade the Supreme Court to live up to the motto engraved in Vermont marble above its own building, which declares “Equal Justice Under Law.”

Nearly five decades ago when the Supreme Court decided Loving v. Virginia, the Court recognized that “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.  To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as [] racial classifications…is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.  The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations.  Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”  In the marriage equality cases heard today, the Court has a simple job to do.  It need only apply these same Constitutional principles to hold that the same principle applies equally regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

When the Supreme Court issues its decision this summer, I am hopeful that it will be another landmark moment demonstrating that ours is a more perfect union when it is a more inclusive union.  And that the name Obergefell will come to signify love, equality, and freedom the same way it does when Loving and Windsor are invoked.

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