Victory deferred

The historic Vermont court decision made gay marriage a reality -- or did it? An excerpt from "Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage."

By David Moats
Published February 27, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)
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Beth Robinson did not expect the call to come that Monday, but at 10:55 A.M. on December 20, 1999, the court clerk was on the line. It could mean only one thing. The Vermont Supreme Court had reached a decision.

The struggle for gay marriage had been waged fitfully for nearly 30 years in courtrooms across the country, gaining a short-lived victory 11 years before in Hawaii. But Hawaii eventually reversed course, and no jurisdiction in the country had established that gays and lesbians had a right to marry equal to that of heterosexual couples.


Now the Vermont Supreme Court was in a position to lead the way. Robinson had argued the case 13 months before, urging the court to establish for the first time anywhere in the United States that gay and lesbian couples had the right to marry. For the past year, she and supporters all across the country had been waiting for the outcome.

The court customarily released its decisions on Fridays, and for the last six months Robinson had worn specific outfits to work each Friday to be ready for the press conference that would follow an announcement of the ruling. In the spring and fall she had worn an electric blue suit. For the summer she had a black and white outfit. But Friday had passed three days before without a ruling, only a hint: The court had sent out a message that because of the holidays it might release rulings the following week on a day other than Friday.

Robinson was a 34-year-old lawyer with one of Vermont's most prestigious firms. She was trim and athletic, with an intense gaze, an incisive intellect and a devotion to the rigors of the law. She had been working on the freedom-to-marry issue for four years, and she knew that people all across the country who had struggled against the indignities of a second-class status had pinned their hopes on her. She had heard the stories of insults endured and rights denied, and she had drawn inspiration from the commitment of people who were willing to fight for legal recognition of their intimate relationships. Since the dawning of the gay rights movement 30 years before, gays and lesbians had been engaged on numerous fronts to establish protections against harassment and hatred, to secure equal rights, and to live with dignity. Now the issue of gay marriage was at the vanguard of the struggle. The decision Robinson waited for on the telephone in Middlebury could well be a landmark in that struggle.


Each of the participants in this political drama had followed a different path to this moment. Some of them were born and raised in Vermont. Others came from as far away as California. Some were gay. Some were straight. Many of them had emerged from the 1960s and 1970s with an idea of Vermont as a community where the individual still mattered.

Vermont was, perhaps, an unlikely setting for such a drama. This was not Castro Street or Christopher Street, the neighborhoods in San Francisco and New York where gay America had staged its sometimes flamboyant, sometimes violent, coming out. This was South Pleasant Street, a shady avenue in Middlebury, a picturesque town of 8,000 where Robinson was a partner at Langrock Sperry & Wool. It was a practice that handled all the affairs, grand and small, of a small town in a rural state. Peter Langrock, the founder of the firm, had written a book of tales from his practice that included a story about the disputed ownership of a stuffed fish.

The Langrock office was housed in a stately white 19th century house situated between another law practice in another white house and the gray stone Baptist church. A florist's shop, where high school kids bought corsages for their proms, was across the street. Three buildings down, overlooking the green, was the elegant mansion built in 1802 by Gamaliel Painter, the pioneer who was one of Middlebury's founders. During the early decades of the 19th century Painter, a signer of Vermont's first constitution, was able to look down from the third-floor monitor -- a kind of widow's walk -- onto the green, the shops and mills of the village he had helped to establish on the falls of Otter Creek.


Larry Abbott was the court clerk who had called Robinson that day. He was authorized only to tell Robinson the outcome of the case, in which the Supreme Court was ruling on a lower court finding that the law limiting marriage to heterosexual unions was constitutional.

This is what he read: "The judgment of the superior court upholding the constitutionality of the Vermont marriage statutes under Chapter 1, Article 7 of the Vermont Constitution is reversed."


Robinson felt a surge of elation. She had won. The lower court had been reversed, and excluding gay and lesbian couples from marriage was now unconstitutional.

But Robinson listened with dismay as Abbott continued to read. "The effect of the Court's decision is suspended, and jurisdiction is retained in this Court, to permit the Legislature to consider and enact legislation consistent with the constitutional mandate described within."

Robinson was astounded.


"Larry, what does that mean?"

It was not Abbott's job to tell her what it meant. He told her the ruling would be on the court's Web site at 11 A.M.

To Robinson this was devastating news. It seemed to her like the cruelest defeat. Even so, her mind was already racing ahead. She hung up the phone and broke in on Susan Murray, who was meeting with clients in the adjacent second-floor office. Murray, 41, and Robinson had founded the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force four years before, and since then she and Robinson had mapped out a careful legal strategy and had worked assiduously to cultivate grassroots support for their cause.


They had won, Robinson told Murray, but the court had handed the issue to the Legislature. The two lawyers didn't have time to dwell on their joy or their disappointment. Pandemonium broke out at Langrock Sperry & Wool. Months ago Robinson and Murray had made arrangements with the Ramada Inn in South Burlington to use a conference room for a press conference. The whole world would know about this ruling as soon as it appeared on the court's Web site. In the next three hours they had to get up to South Burlington, 35 miles away, but they didn't have a clue what they were going to tell the press.

Murray, tall and affable, with flecks of gray in her dark hair, had been at Langrock Sperry & Wool since 1984. She quickly joined Robinson in trying to figure out what to do next. The two staff assistants who were prepared to help them with the press conference were both out with the flu, so the lawyers enlisted other staff members to download a copy of the ruling, get in touch with the Ramada Inn, notify the press, and track down the six plaintiffs.

Murray and Robinson represented one gay and two lesbian couples who had gone to their town and city clerks seeking marriage licenses. The clerks had politely denied all three couples, citing Vermont law and an opinion from the Vermont attorney general's office. The six had sued, and their case had ended up before the Vermont Supreme Court. These six were the public faces of the case, and they needed to be at the press conference.

Robinson and Murray decided the lawyers and clients would have to meet at the firm's Burlington office before the press conference so they could decide what to say about this mystifying decision. In the meantime, Robinson and Murray would have to read the court's ruling. The court had affirmed their clients' right to marry but had suspended its decision. It seemed they had won a victory. But what kind of victory? The news of the decision would soon be on the airwaves nationwide, but the lawyers who had won the case were caught between the joy of victory and the despair of victory deferred.


Copyright © 2004 David Moats. For more information, please visit

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