The Supreme Court of the United States’ historic 5-4 decision in Obergefell v.
Hodges (2015) made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. On the front lines
of the case was 2010 WVU Law graduate Jacklyn “Jaci” Gonzales Martin, then an
attorney with Gerhardstein & Branch in Cincinnati, Ohio, and co-counsel for
lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell (above). Not long after the ruling, Martin talked
to WVU Law Magazine about her involvement in the groundbreaking civil rights
When did you first meet Jim Obergefell?
I met Jim Obergefell and his husband, John Arthur, shortly after they were married in the summer of 2013. When the Windsor decision [declaring Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional] came down that summer, having been together for 20 years, Jim and John decided to make their union official.
John had ALS, and he did not have long to live. He was bedridden, so the couple took a medically equipped plane to Maryland and married on the tarmac. It wasn’t until Jim and John got home that it started to sink in for them that although their marriage was legal in Maryland and recognized by the federal government, their marriage did not exist in their home state of Ohio.
When did Gerhardstein & Branch get involved in the Obergefell case?
My boss, Al Gerhardstein, was introduced to Jim and John through a mutual friend days after their wedding, and our firm started dreaming about how to ensure that their marriage would be recognized by their home state. We knew that the state’s system for recording deaths would be one inevitable and imminent way Ohio’s marriage equality bans would affect this couple. There is a place on a death certificate to mark whether a person was married and the name of their surviving spouse. For John Arthur, unless we acted, he would be known on his last official record of his life as “single” and Jim Obergefell would not be recognized as his surviving spouse.
We filed a complaint and motion for temporary restraining order in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Ohio preventing that outcome. Within three days, we won.
In February 2014, we brought a second lawsuit, Henry v. Hodges, representing four families seeking birth certificates for their children that recognized both same-sex, loving parents. We won temporary relief for those couples as well. Four similar cases in Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky were also successful at the district court level around this same time.
Later, the Sixth Circuit, which sits in Cincinnati, heard the appeals of all six Sixth Circuit marriage cases on the same day. Al Gerhardstein and others argued beautifully for the plaintiffs, but we lost at the Sixth Circuit. We had two conservative judges on our three-judge panel. Judge Jeffrey Sutton, who wrote the Sixth Circuit opinion, did not believe it was the judiciary’s role to decide the marriage issue, and he wanted the right to marry to be left to a vote.
As a result, all six cases, including Obergefell and Henry, were consolidated, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted our petition for certiorari. The consolidated cases are called Obergefell v. Hodges.
What were the constitutional issues that this case decided, and what is the effect of that ruling going forward?
The questions presented to the U.S. Supreme Court were whether states are required to license same-sex couples to marry and whether states are obligated to recognize legal same-sex marriages. The Court answered “yes” to both questions. It held that under both due process and equal protection theories, same-sex couples have a right to marriage equal to that of opposite-sex couples. The Court overruled the Sixth Circuit’s holding that marriage equality should be left to the democratic process, finding that “the dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.”
What impact will Obergefell v. Hodges have on future cases involving LGBTQ rights?
Obergefell is an important step in the fight for full equality for LGBTQ people in this country, but there is much more work to do with respect to discrimination in employment, housing, businesses, schools and other areas of life.
The U.S. Supreme Court did not explicitly state what constitutional test was applied to the claim forLGBTQ equality by, for instance, recognizing LGBTQ people as a protected class, but by striking down marriage bans that marked same-sex couples as unequal, it established a strong precedent for equal rights.
What work did you do on this case?
I helped develop the theory and write the complaint and the briefs, all the way through the process, including the Supreme Court Petition for Writ of Certiorari and merits briefing. I was in the second row at the Court for the arguments. It was amazing to be in the same room with the Justices and the extensive legal teams and clients fighting for this issue.
What were some of the national organizations that worked with your firm on the case?
We co-counseled with Lambda Legal in the Henry case and with the ACLU in the Obergefell case. The national groups joined the suits once our win in the district court was on appeal in the Sixth Circuit. It was fantastic having their expertise and experience from other cases throughout the country. I met some really great attorneys, and everyone worked together really well-sharing in the drafting and editing process.
As a WVU Law student, Jaci Gonzales Martin was president of the Public Interest Advocates and the Women’s Law Caucus and an associate editor of the West Virginia Law Review. Among her most influential law professors, she lists Chuck DiSalvo, Bob Bastress, Anne Marie Lofaso and Patrick McGinley.
In 2010, the West Virginia Fund for Law in the Public Interest awarded Martin a one-year post-graduate fellowship to work at Mountain State Justice in Charleston. There, her cases focused on representing low-income homeowners and reforming the state’s juvenile justice system.
Following the fellowship, Martin stayed on with Mountain State Justice for another year before moving to Ohio with her husband, Roy, where he had accepted a job with the Environmental Protection Agency in Cincinnati. Soon after, she began work at Gerhardstein & Branch.65