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Penn Law faculty, graduates, play key role in overturning PA’s same-sex marriage ban

May 21, 2014

Graduates and faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School have played an instrumental role in the landmark federal court ruling declaring Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III invalidated the ban with his decision in Whitewood v. Wolf, a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and volunteer counsel from the law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller on behalf of 23 Pennsylvanians who wish to marry or want the Commonwealth to recognize their out-of-state marriages.

Len Rieser and Fernando Chang-Muy, both attorneys and lecturers at the Law School, who entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2004, are plaintiffs in the case. The counsel team includes Penn Law Professor Seth Kreimer who specializes in constitutional law and litigation.

Several of Kreimer’s former students were also members of the counsel team. Mary Catherine Roper L’93 (ACLU-PA), John Stapleton L’02, Dylan Steinberg L’06, and Rebecca Melley L’07 served as counsel, along with Mark Aronchick, a lecturer at the Law School.

“This was a masterful job,” Kreimer said of the litigation. The judge, he said, “came to the conclusion that Pennsylvania’s ban denies fundamental constitutional rights.” Of the plaintiffs and other same-sex couples seeking to marry, Kreimer observed, “These are people that, like the rest of us, are eager to enter into the responsibilities and joys of marriage.”

The lawsuit was filed 13 days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in U.S. v. Windsor. “There was thinking about the best way to move forward post-Windsor, and we concluded that this was a good opportunity to move Pennsylvania into the mainstream of the world that we are going to live in,” Kreimer explained.

He said that when he first started teaching Constitutional law in the 1980s, “the big case was Brown v. Board of Education, and it’s an enormous honor for me to be involved in a case that reflects the civil rights struggle of our time.”

In his 39-page decision, Judge Jones cited Brown and noted that 60 years after Brown was decided, of the “now rightfully discarded doctrine of separate but equal…‘separate’ has thankfully faded into history, and only ‘equal’ remains.” 

Likewise, the judge wrote, “in future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage.”

Pennsylvania’s Attorney General has said she will not defend the law, and PA Governor Tom Corbett has stated publicly he will not contest the ruling. Same-sex couples have begun applying for and receiving marriage licenses in the state.

On a personal level, Kreimer said, “One of the very gratifying things to me is that so many members of our team have connections to Penn Law; it’s a joy to work alongside outstanding lawyers I knew as students.”