“The Fall of Prop 8”: Plaintiffs of Hollingsworth v. Perry Visit the Law School
“I think we were chosen because we were so ordinary,” said Kris Perry, namesake of the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, as she addressed members of the Cornell Law community on April 23. Joined by wife and fellow plaintiff Sandy Stier, Perry was at the Law School for “The Fall of Prop 8,” a conversation on the legal battle to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
The event was organized by Lambda, Cornell Law’s Association for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ), and straight ally community, and moderated by Michael Dorf, Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law. In his introduction, Dorf, who edits the Constitutional Law Stories book series, remarked, “For me this is a special treat, to have an actual constitutional law story come to life before us.”
Perry and Stier, who have been together since 1997 and are the parents of four sons, first tried to marry in 2004, when the city of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Four years later, after California’s Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry, the two thought they had another chance. Shortly thereafter, however, the Proposition 8 ballot initiative passed, effectively rolling back the court decision. When a legal team seeking to challenge Prop 8 approached Perry and Stier to be plaintiffs, they agreed, signing on to a case that would make its way through district and appellate courts before finally appearing before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Presenting before a packed lecture hall at the Law School, Perry and Stier shared the behind-the-scenes details of the four-year case, from the campaign’s three-tiered strategy of legal action, public education, and depoliticization, to the ways that being plaintiffs affected their personal lives.
A major topic was the preparation Perry and Stier underwent before the district-court deposition and subsequent trial. The couple stressed the trust and support that developed between them and their legal team, which Perry referred to as “this incredible partnership between legal minds and regular people.” After their “very grueling but also satisfying” testimony concluded and the legal team moved on to its expert witnesses, “we could let our hair down and just enjoy the process,” said Stier. “We felt like, over the next twelve days, we got a Ph.D. in the history of marriage and marriage equality.”
Seven months after that trial ended, the district court ruled in Perry and Stier’s favor. Reflecting on the August 2010 decision, Perry told the audience of law students that, as someone who had typically felt excluded, “it really changed my whole perspective on being an American” to confront an injustice through the legal process and to feel that the process actually worked. “I know that’s not always the case,” she added, “but I know that’s why you’re here—because you believe that it does work.”
With proponents of Prop 8 appealing the district-court ruling and a subsequent appellate-court ruling that upheld it, Hollingsworth v. Perry ultimately landed before the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 26, 2013, the same day it struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, the court ruled that the proponents of Prop 8 had not had standing to appeal the district court decision in the plaintiff’s favor. The victory, based as it was on standing rather than merit, was “bittersweet,” said Perry. It did, however, have the effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in California, and that month she and Stier returned home to become the first same-sex couple to wed in the state.
Following their presentation, Perry and Stier took audience questions, which touched on diverse aspects of their experience, from the initial skepticism of mainstream LGBT-rights groups toward the case, to the logistics of being involved in such a lengthy legal process (“We used all of our vacation days for five years,” noted Perry), to which actresses should play the two in the event that a movie is made of the story (“Naomi Watts,” volunteered Stier). Asked about the next frontier for LGBT litigation, Perry pointed to employment non-discrimination, and Stier added that there are “endless opportunities” at the international level.
“The Fall of Prop 8” was cosponsored by the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Finance Commission, Cornell Advocates for Human Rights, Cornell Law Students Association, Cornell International Human Rights Clinic, Advocacy for LGBT Communities Clinic, and the California Law Student Association.