Same-sex marriage case in court: Attorney Mary Bonauto

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse's desires and hopes to legally wed now partially rest in the hands of a longtime legal crusader for gay rights who is credited with getting same-sex marriages legalized in the United States.

Bostonian Mary Bonauto has carved out a more than two decades-long reputation for defending the civil rights of gays and lesbians. She was the leading attorney in a lawsuit against Massachusetts, which resulted in the state being the first to legalize gay marriage in 2004.

On Tuesday, she will be the one taking the floor to present oral arguments to try to win DeBoer and Rowse and same-sex couples from Kentucky the legal right to marry.

Bonauto joined the DeBoer-Rowse legal team, which had been working on the case since 2011, last November.

"She has a wealth of knowledge and has a supportive system nationwide," said Detroit attorney Carole Stanyar, co-counsel for the Michigan case. "She started helping us the minute we asked her to. She rolled up her sleeves and went to work."

Bonauto is considered a trailblazer.

"I don't know of anyone who knows more about marriage equality than Mary Bonauto," said Detroit attorney Stanyar, a member of the legal team representing DeBoer and Rowse, the Hazel Park women who filed a lawsuit in January 2012 challenging Michigan's gay marriage ban.

It will be Bonauto's first time before the nation's High Court. She has no special routines "other than preparing as thoroughly as possible."

Other attorneys will argue for marriage recognition of gay and lesbian couples in Ohio and Tennessee. Currently, 37 states have legalized same-sex marriage.

Bonauto, the legal director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders for 25 years, was the lead counsel in the 2003 landmark case Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which resulted in Massachusetts being the first state to allow same-sex couples to legally wed the following year.

In 1997, Bonauto formed a partnership with others in Vermont to challenge that state's gay marriage ban. In a ruling two years later by the Vermont Supreme Court, Baker v. Vermont, the state was the first to mandate same-sex couples must be given the same protections and obligations offered to married couples.

The state established the country's first civil union law in 2000 to comply with the court's ruling.

Bonauto also led GLAD's federal court challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, which led to the first district and appellate court victories against DOMA. She also coordinated amicus briefs for the Windsor case at the Supreme Court.

"She's our Thurgood Marshall," said former Democratic Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank in a New York Times article in March 2013.

John Bursch, who will be arguing against Bonauto as the lead lawyer for the state of Michigan in its effort to have the voter-approved gay marriage ban upheld, describes his opponent as "smart."

Fighting for the mistreated

Northeastern University law school professor Mary O'Connell taught Bonauto family law and recalls her former student as a dedicated person who developed a commitment to fighting discrimination of gays and lesbians early on.

"It's been her conviction for decades and decades," O'Connell said. "She was offended by this discrimination by a certain group of people.

"She always felt gays and lesbians were misunderstood and mistreated."

Bonauto is soft-spoken, smart and "doesn't believe in beating down an opponent but likes to win." She is an "incredibly solid" lawyer who does her homework, O'Connell said.

"I'm not surprised she got this case," she said.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Bonauto will do a good job.

"There is no advocate more fitting to stand before the Supreme Court on behalf of all of us arguing for the freedom to marry than Mary Bonauto," Wolfson said. "Mary's presenting the oral argument caps the compelling collective presentation our movement has made to win marriage nationwide. It's time for the Supreme Court to finish the job."

'Telling their stories'

"This is an issue that is of utmost importance to same-sex couples around the whole nation," Bonauto said this week. "People want to very simply make this legally binding commitment to each other and take on these responsibilities. I look forward to telling their stories and vindicating (the couples)."

Bonauto, who has participated in mock courts to prepare, plans to make full arguments and file briefs with the court that show her same-sex couples and their children are injured and face stigma due to discrimination of same-sex parents.

"Equal protection and liberty are at play here," Bonauto said. "We really feel good about the (legal) precedence we have."

She expects to argue same-sex couples are denied equal protection under the law because of same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Bonauto was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly referred to as the "genius grant" in 2014, and was recognized with other honorees in the area of "designing new strategies to address persistent social challenges."

Bonauto, who was born and raised in New York, is a graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. She received her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.

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Challenger's legal team

Besides Mary Bonauto, the other attorneys on the legal team for April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse are Dana Nessel, Carole Stanyar, Ken Mogill and Robert Sedler.