Paul Smith talks civil rights, same-sex marriage at Law in Motion lecture

    Attorney Paul Smith spoke to Northwestern students and faculty Thursday afternoon at the Law in Motion lecture at the McCormick Tribune Center Forum. 

    Smith, the former co-chair of Lambda Legal's Board of Directors, worked for many years to overturn Bowers v. Hardwicka 1986 Supreme Court decision that upheld a Georgia sodomy law that criminalized oral and anal sex between two consenting, adult homosexuals.

    "If you were openly gay, you were essentially admitting that you were a felon," Smith said.

    In 2003, this case was overturned by the verdict in Lawrence v. Texas, which is considered to be the Brown v. Board of Education of the gay rights movement. In this case, the Supreme Court struck down a sodomy law in Texas, which in turn legalized same-sex sexual activity in the United States.

    "They let me argue it, which has been kind of a life changing experience in many ways," said Smith, who represented Lambda Legal and defended the case to the Supreme Court, resulting in a vote of 6-3.

    "There were all these people in tears, and enormous excitement," Smith said. "The case was enormously important."

    When considering the gay rights movement, Smith said there are two categories in the rights that same-sex couples should demand. 

    "The first category is the right to be tolerated, to be left alone, to be free from oppression," Smith said. "The second goal, the one that has become the primary goal in the last 10 years, is the goal of having our relationships realized as fully equal, fully respected."

    Several states have already legalized same-sex marriage, but Smith said he hopes to see a federal legalization and endorsement of gay marriage with two court cases that the Supreme Court will decide in the next few months. One of the cases involves California's Proposition 8, a proposition passed by ballot in 2008 that amended the California Constitution by saying that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

    The second case calls for a revision of the Defense of Marriage Act. As the law currently is, marriage is defined as the union between a man and a woman. However, the Court could amend the law to redefine marriage as simply a civil union.

    While Smith said he believes that one, if not both, of these cases could pass in favor of the LGBTQ community, he does not think the vote will be overwhelmingly unanimous.

    "The court is unlikely to lead a revolution," Smith said. "It doesn't want to be too far out there ahead of the people."

    However, with the increasing shift in popular thought favoring same-sex marriage, the court will not be changing public opinion – the movement has already occurred.

    "The public opinion is changing very dramatically," Smith said. "We lawyers who litigate these cases like to think that we're changing the law and we're changing the country, but this massive river of change is happening whether we like it or not."


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