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9.1.16

Get Me to the Court on Time

Mary Breslauer of Chilmark had one small, vital job to do in the cause of liberty. And she chose to call Uber...

The day had finally arrived. It was sunny, breezy, and a bit cool for April in the nation’s capital, where summer can arrive in May. It was also an historic day, even joyous, particularly if you were a gay American.

It was on this day in 2015 when oral arguments on same-sex marriage would be heard by the United States Supreme Court. While there was reason to be optimistic, the stakes were enormous because the court would make a rule for the country – up or down.

That morning I had a straightforward job: get Mary Bonauto to the court on time. This wasn’t optional; Bonauto was the oralist in Obergefell v. Hodges, the lead case of several the court selected to determine the federal outcome on marriage. The arguments were divided in two: must states allow same-sex couples to marry nationwide; and should states be required to recognize same-sex marriages already performed in other states. Bonauto was up for the first, and bigger, question.

Bonauto and I had history. We had worked together over the years on marriage cases and ballot referendums either seeking marriage equality or defending it. Our collaboration began in 2001 when Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston filed Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health in the Massachusetts state court system. Bonauto was and is the civil rights director for GLAD and she asked me to help develop the public narrative and media approach. That case ultimatley led to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in 2003, making us the first state in the nation to allow same-sex marriage.

My job then and now is always behind the scenes, or behind the curtain, depending on your perspective. I help direct press strategy, but I seldom speak to reporters. I may oversee social media, but I’m not personally posting on any platform. I train people in handling media interviews, but I never give one. I often write speeches, but I’m never on the stage.

And there’s lots of miscellaneous assignments in between. This day, however austere, carried a simple mission: meet the makeup artist at the Marriott where Bonauto had holed up that week preparing for the argument and get Bonauto to the courthouse steps. Ideally, drop her at a precise spot where waiting cameras would film her arrival.

Breezy, easy. This was not putting a polished face on, aka Megyn Kelly. This was a little powder to keep the shine down, negotiated with a lawyer who shuns that kind of personal attention. 

I was in the lobby early. Check. But then the minutes ticked by. I checked my watch against my iPhone. The makeup person was running late. Nonetheless, Bonauto managed to be gracious as she hurriedly ushered us into her room.  

The makeup artist worked quickly and I assured Bonauto not to worry; I had already called an Uber town car. We would take no chances, I said, with a taxi. Uber will get us there in a flash.

Except. Except when we got into the back of the black car and settled into our leather seats, Bonauto’s sizeable black legal bag on wheels in the trunk, this Uber driver who arrived in three minutes, and was already pulling away, didn’t know where the Supreme Court was. Did not know. Where. The Supreme Court. Was. 

We were in motion, though in which direction? Did we have an address? No, we don’t have a damn address – it’s the Supreme Court for God’s sakes. Everybody here knows where the court is. We’re from Massachusetts. We give him the cross streets and the world seems right again until he pulls up to some nondescript federal building. Not the Supreme Court.

Traffic meanwhile is miserable; it’s a stop-and-go rush hour slog. Bonauto by now is worried that security will be a problem. She’s going to be late. Always incessantly polite, Bonauto is now visibly agitated. In turn, I’m trying very hard not to unravel so that I can present some tiny bit of bravado that we’ll be fine, just fine. 

But it wasn’t feeling that way. Somehow, we also got the one Uber driver who was infuriatingly passive. Once, twice he misses his opportunity to turn left allowing others to get in front of us. Meantime, I’m fielding calls from colleagues dealing with the legions of press on hand, which can be summarized as follows: “Where are you?”

Finally, we’re at a standstill. I can see the court because there are thousands of demonstrators and flags and placards.  And when the driver misses that third red light opening, Bonauto reaches for the door.

 “Let’s go,” she says. “We can run.” I’m thinking, “We can run?” I tell her I’ll grab the legal bag from the trunk. She’s already twenty yards in front of me. I lift the bag out of the trunk and I’m completely taken back by the weight of it. It’s a frigging bowling bag on wheels. 

I extend the handle and start running. I mean, we’re two lesbians in fairly sensible shoes so, hypothetically, running is possible. But, goodness she’s fast.  Every now and then, Bonauto, now apparently seeking a track record as well as a Supreme Court win, turns briefly and yells, “Hurry up! Come on! Hurry up!”

I did not train for this. I did not train to run three long D.C. blocks with a black bag full of boulders. I mean legal briefs and notes. I can barely breathe, but I can’t stop.

As she approaches the court, the camera crews, which have set up at the earlier agreed-to location, see her and now they come running. Everyone is running. Bonauto, me, reporters, camera people, and hundreds of well wishers who spot her, too, as we run up the steps and reach the court plaza. 

I extend the handle of the bag. I can’t speak because I am gasping for air. Bonauto grabs it and just before she disappears from sight, she turns and one photographer captures our sign off – two thumbs up – one mine, one hers. 

Now the day millions of Americans have waited for can begin.

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