What It Was Like Inside the Courtroom During DOMA's Ruling


Like most kids, I spent much of my childhood trying to conform to what I thought was normal. For me, normal meant doing everything I could to impress my friends, playing sports I wasn't really good at, and pretending I was straight when I wasn't. It took 22 years of my life — and in particular my mom's profound refusal to let me settle for fear over happiness — that I finally began to accept my identity as a gay man.

As anyone who has traveled a similar path knows, coming out is a long and winding road, with a bevy of pitfalls and setbacks along the way. There is no blueprint and no guaranteed outcome. At 22-years-old, I could have never imagined that just six years later I would stand inside the historic Stonewall Inn in New York City — the site of the famous riots nearly 44 years ago that launched the modern gay rights movement — and ask my boyfriend to marry me. Even a few years prior, marriage seemed as improbable to me as it was inconceivable, a pipe dream for a community that felt destined for perpetual second-class citizenship.

With this backdrop, I joined a line steps from the Supreme Court building near midnight on Tuesday evening, hoping to witness yet another once presumed impossibility the following morning. The assembled crowd was a blend of people young and not so young, from D.C. and elsewhere, most of whom — including myself — had come to see if their rights would be vindicated. As the evening wore on, more than 100 of us had gathered, collectively agreeing to wait nearly 10 hours to watch the justices announce their rulings in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth et al. v. Perry et al., two historic marriage equality cases many years in the making.

As the morning sun slowly illuminated the Capitol Dome and the Statue of Freedom on its high perch, media and activists began to arrive at the Court, but we would wait until just after 8am for the line to begin moving. The first group of 50 were given tickets and allowed to enter the building. The rest of us waited patiently, wondering if our chance would come. Finally, at about 9:30, a guard handed me ticket number 79.

Once inside, we had little time to appreciate the majesty of the place, rushing past a statue of Former Chief Justice John Marshall (whose famous opinion establishing the basis for judicial review, Marbury v. Madison, would be cited by both sides of the Court in Windsor) and leaving most of our belongings — including all electronic devices — in lockers. A coworker and I then entered the courtroom, where we were led to our seats — directly in the back-center of the room. 

More waiting followed, with repeated admonishments by the Marshal's guards to keep conversations to a minimum. Members of the Supreme Court Bar entered, as did more members of the public and the Hollingsworth plaintiffs and attorneys. Time moved forward ever so slightly, until a five-minute warning buzzer rang at 9:55. The room fell silent. 

Then, at exactly 10:00, the Marshal of the Supreme Court, Pamela Talkin, began the famous "crying" of the Court: "The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States." Curtains behind a row of nine empty black chairs quickly opened, everyone in the room stood, and Chief Justice Roberts and his colleagues entered. Talkin continued: "Oyez, oyez, oyez: All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this honorable Court."

We took our seats. The room went silent again, until the Chief Justice began: "We begin this morning with Case Number 12-307, United States v. Windsor, with an opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy ... " Immediately, the room of several hundred people seemed to lean forward, backs upright. This was it.

In a clear, calm, and assertive tone, Kennedy began reading from his summary of the majority opinion. As he opened with an overview of the case — betraying no clues as to what he might say next — I leaned over to my coworker sitting next to me and whispered, "Look at Thomas." Almost immediately after Kennedy began speaking, Justice Thomas had arched his head toward to ceiling and rocked his chair back slightly. To say the least, he didn't look pleased, as if at any moment he would excoriate Kennedy and walk out.

Surveying the bench, other clues began to pour out. Justice Scalia looked particularly unhappy (as he usually does). Justice Alito started intently at the bench, looking moderately troubled. Justice Sotomayor offered what seemed to be a sympathetic stare into the crowd. And perhaps most interestingly, Justice Kagan searched the crowd for reaction, looking thoughtful and a bit moved by what was about to unfold.

As Kennedy continued, it seemed all of us were waiting for him to foreshadow his views, but he instead talked about everything else — what the lower courts ruled, how the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) came to defend the case, and how the plaintiff, Edith Windsor, was denied benefits under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). But then, suddenly, Kennedy removed all doubt: "By seeking to injure the very class New York seeks to protect," Kennedy said, "DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government."

Several people around me gasped and my eyes welled with tears. I surveyed the room and saw looks of instant recognition, disbelief, and pride from young men and women I had never met but with whom I immediately shared a deep connection. Justice Kennedy continued: "DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages." My eyes began to wonder up to the friezes — sculpted depictions high on the courtroom walls that portray "great lawgivers of history" and values such as justice, truth, and wisdom. I began to think of the generations of LGBT Americans — pioneers like Harvey Milk, Frank Kameny, and Sylvia Rivera — who might have only imagined what I was witnessing but never saw it realized. And then, as Kennedy concluded that DOMA was a violation of the Fifth Amendment, I thought about how I, too, simply yearned to be treated equally under the law and to marry the person I love. It would be too late for Edith Windsor and her late wife, Thea, who were engaged nearly 40 years earlier, but perhaps our generation could live out her legacy.

Justice Scalia next read a lengthy summary of his scathing dissent in Windsor, eliciting both laughter and looks of bewilderment before apologizing "for taking so long," and quickly summarized the majority opinion in Sekhar v. United States. It was then that Chief Justice Roberts announced he would read the final opinion of the term in Case Number 12-144, Hollingsworth v. Perry. As soon as Roberts observed that an "actual controversy" must exist for a case to be heard before the Court and that a mere "generalized grievance" was not enough, it became abundantly clear that the Court would vacate and remand Hollingsworth for lack of standing. Proposition 8 would therefore fall, and lawful same-sex marriages could again resume in California.

After a few closing formalities to conclude the term, we stood and exited the room, the majority of us both stunned and elated. Seeing the cheering crowd outside was an uplifting capstone to a day filled with so many memorable moments, but none more meaningful than a voicemail I received a short while later. My mom had called, as she always does at times of great consequence in my life. "All I can say is wow," she said, her voice cracking. "I am ready to dance at that damn wedding. I love you. And I am so happy for all of you."

I was lucky to live long enough to hear those words, to overcome fear and to finally live out my truth. But if only I could have shared those words with the kids who didn't make it, with the ones who felt so different and so unwelcome in their community and their country that they would rather take their own lives. I wish I could have had them take my place in that courtroom, to have them know not only that they matter but that in our nation's greatest moments the inscription on our courtroom doors is forever enshrined in our laws: "Equal Justice Under The Law." This week, we took one major leap toward that ideal.