“Justice happens when you take the time to look in a client’s eyes and learn what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the judicial system.”
When Edith "Edie" Windsor and her lawyer Roberta Kaplan visited Cardozo, they gave students a rare look into the client-lawyer relationship, and behind one of the major Supreme Court cases of our day. Having recently returned from United States Supreme Court, Windsor told around 150 students and faculty members that when she saw the words Windsor v. United States she felt only panic.
"Nobody ever really believed that this could happen in our lives," she said.
Windsor and Kaplan were interviewed by Vice Dean Ed Stein, director of the Gertrud Mainzer Program in Family Law, Policy & Bioethics, for the Gloria and Stanley Plesent Lecture on April 23. A resident of Greenwich Village, she's challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law stating a marriage must be defined as between a man and a woman.
Windsor married Thea Spyer, her partner of 40 years, in Canada in 2007. The marriage was later accepted by New York State-but when Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was hit with federal estate tax of $363,000-a tax that would not apply if her marriage was to a man.
"I felt hurt for my spouse and I felt my government was treating me very unjustly," she said.
Kaplan took on Windsor's case-setting up a dynamic that contributed to changes in the state's marriage laws.
Arguing the case was like "winning the lawyer lottery," Kaplan said. "It never would have occurred to me in 1991 when I graduated law school that gay marriage would be a possibility, let alone that we would be challenging the U.S. government."
This feeling of hope surrounding the case started when the Deputy Attorney General's office called Kaplan and asked for more time to consider a position on the case. Skeptical, she said that "I will be praying for you and the President when you make that decision."
Weeks later when the call from the AG's office came in-saying that President Obama would not be defending DOMA-Kaplan had tears in her eyes. She recalled the conversation.
"Remember that call, when you said you would pray for us?" the Attorney General's office said. "Well, sometimes prayer works."
Windsor has been an active participant in her case, and said she's read 190 amicus briefs on both sides and feels "terribly good" about the prospects of winning.
"I believe in justice and I believe in briefs," she said. "This court has made equal protection decisions and I saw nothing in their interactions (in oral arguments) that told me they aren't going to do that now."
And that is all Windsor is hoping for-after her long road that started with hiding her relationship for 16 years during the 1950s and 60s.
"We all come out in various ways, deciding in all kinds of ways where we stand," she said. "I finally came to the day where I started saying, 'I am an out lesbian and I am an out lesbian who is saying no to the United States government'."