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Three heavyweight litigators at the forefront of advancing marriage equality spoke at the American Bar Association 2013 Annual Meeting Aug. 9 during a panel discussion titled “More than an Equal Sign: DOMA, Prop 8, the Supreme Court and Your Practice.”
DOMA is the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law enacted in the 1990s that defined marriage exclusively as being between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in June, paving the way for federal benefits and responsibilities to apply to legally married gay and lesbian couples.
Proposition 8 is the voter initiative passed in California that banned same-sex marriage but was overturned in federal trial and appellate court. The Supreme Court declined to issue an opinion on the case, finding that proponents of the measure lacked standing to bring the case.
Currently, same-sex marriage is allowed in 13 states, five Native American tribes and 14 countries.
Julie Fink, a litigation associate with Paul Weiss, was on the team that represented Edith Windsor, whose lawsuit challenged the DOMA’s constitutionality. Fink explained that Windsor spent 44 years with her late spouse, whom she married in Canada, but was forced to pay more than $360,000 in federal estate taxes because the federal government didn’t recognize their marriage.
Windsor “told the perfect story of why DOMA was so wrong,” Fink said.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, lauded the Obama administration for its speed in extending federal benefits to same-sex couples in light of the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling. He predicted that all existing state versions of DOMA would be overturned by voters or courts within five years.
Therese Stewart, the lead city attorney for San Francisco who advocated for the city’s right to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, suggested that political victories for same-sex marriage are preferable to court victories, as judges and the public are more inclined to accept policies adopted by legislatures or voter initiatives.
The ABA Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity was the lead sponsor of the panel. Attesting to the broad range of interest in the topic from the legal community was the roster of other ABA groups that co-sponsored the panel, including the Commission on Law and Aging, Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division, Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law, Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, Section of Taxation, Section of State and Local Government Law,Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division, Law Practice Management Section, Commission on Disability Rights, Section of Family Law
Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, and Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources.
Panelists at an ABA Annual Meeting discussion on same-sex marriage included (from left) moderator Mark Wojcik of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Julie Fink of Paul Weiss, Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Therese Stewart of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.