THE HON. JOHN GREANEY REFLECTS ON GOODRIDGE CASE, GAY RIGHTS
When the landmark Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health came to the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 2003, the Honorable John Greaney had already seen his share of controversial trials.
But still he knew the decision, which would determine whether same-sex couples could get married in the state, was a monumental one.
"If we decided in favor of the plaintiffs, we were going to be the first court in the country to do it," said Greaney, 73, who teaches constitutional law at Suffolk University Law School.
A decade later the Goodridge case has gone down in the history books, and we now know the Massachusetts justices were the first to rule in favor of gay marriage. The historic ruling helped set the stage for a succession of states that have all followed their lead -- currently nine in total, plus the District of Columbia.
On April 5, legal experts from around the country will converge in Boston for Suffolk Law's "Lawrence and Goodridge at 10" conference, which will look at the changing landscape of gay rights in the last ten years in light of the Goodridge case, as well as Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the sodomy law.
As part of the conference, Judge Greaney will sit on a panel focusing on judicial independence and social change. His fellow panelists will include the Honorable Michael Streit, a former Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, and the Honorable Vaughn Walker, a former trial judge for the Proposition 8 case, Perry v. Brown.
Greaney's presence at the Goodridge trial was a notable one. When Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote that marriage restrictions lacked a rational basis to support them, Greaney decided to write his own concurring opinion, instead focusing on issues of due process and equal protection.
Nearly a decade before, in a prelude to the Goodridge case, Greaney had also written the opinion to allow same-sex couples to adopt children in Massachusetts.
"I thought it was just a fundamental problem. We were treating people, because of their sexual orientation and sex, fundamentally different than we treated other people," he said on the Goodridge decision. "Not only because there was no good reason, that's the rational basis, but because the constitution guarantees equal treatment of a certain class of people."
Besides his concurring opinion being celebrated by gay-rights activists, the judge's words are frequently included in marriage ceremonies of many same-sex couples.
He wrote: "I am hopeful that our decision will be accepted by those thoughtful citizens who believe that same-sex unions should not be approved by the State. I am not referring here to acceptance in the sense of grudging acknowledgment of the court's authority to adjudicate the matter. My hope is more liberating. … We share a common humanity and participate together in the social contract that is the foundation of our Commonwealth. Simple principles of decency dictate that we extend to the plaintiffs, and to their new status, full acceptance, tolerance, and respect. We should do so because it is the right thing to do."
At the time, the decision was momentous: The only progress for same-sex marriage advocates prior to the Goodridge case had been in Hawaii, where gay marriage had been legalized but then overruled by a voter amendment, and in Vermont, where civil unions had been legalized.
"Clearly if we did it right now, in 2013, it would almost be shrugged off. 'Well there's another state doing it, another court doing it,'" Greaney said. "But back then our court, and a court of our magnitude, because we're the oldest court in the Western Hemisphere … had a lot of significance."
Today, the battle over gay rights is far from over. The Supreme Court is about to hear two important cases that Judge Greaney is following closely: Windsor v. United States, which will determine the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and Perry v. Hollingsworth, about Proposition 8 in California, and whether the federal government can deny gay people benefits even if the state they live in has legalized gay marriage. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in these two cases on March 26 and 27.
Going forward, Greaney said he imagines Goodridge will be remembered like the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down a law that claimed miscegenation, or multi-racial marriage, was illegal.
At their core, in both cases, Greaney said, "A persecuted group of people were barred from one of the more fundamental rights that we all have."
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