Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Debbie Cenziper knows how to tell a story, and in the legal battle over same-sex marriage, she has found an emotionally engaging subject. Along with Jim Obergefell, who is credited as co-author, Cenziper in “Love Wins” illuminates the drama behind the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 decision upholding a constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry.
That decision, remember, was called Obergefell v. Hodges. Hodges was Richard Hodges, director of the Ohio Department of Health. Here, his is only a bit part. James Obergefell, as he was identified on his Supreme Court petition, was the first-named of the multiple gay men and women challenging Ohio’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages. He’s center-stage from the book’s very first lines, which grab the reader and never let go.
“Soon it would be time for goodbye,” Cenziper and Obergefell begin. “His husband was dying....”
But the “Love Wins” subtitle is “The Lovers and Lawyers who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality,” and the book is equally devoted to attorney Al Gerhardstein, who doggedly represented Obergefell at the trial and appellate levels and then watched another take the spotlight for the climactic Supreme Court argument itself.
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This book is deeply reported, vividly detailed and utterly humane. While it thoroughly reflects Obergefell’s perspective, the authors maintain a commendably respectful attitude toward same-sex marriage opponents. It’s a human interest story, first and foremost. The title may telegraph its point of view, but the authors have produced something far warmer and much more interesting than an expanded legal brief.
It is written with a novelist’s attention to scene description and character-revealing action — “Judge Timothy S. Black strode into his bustling courtroom, long black robe whipping around his legs” and “Al Gerhardstein, sweaty and defiant, jabbed the air with a ballpoint pen.” It dodges legal or bureaucratic arcana as it remains, throughout, a story about people.
Alone in the fading light of the yellow bedroom, Jim and his husband launched the first-ever challenge to Ohio’s ban on the recognition of same-sex marriage, enshrined in the state’s constitution by 3.3 million voters.
From “Love Wins,” by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell.
Obergefell and Gerhardstein clearly opened both their hearts and their files, and the acknowledgements identify other sources who helped. Appellate Judge Martha Craig Dougherty, for instance, enabled Cenziper, who was also a reporter at the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer, to write declaratively that Dougherty “had come to (a) hearing hoping that Judge Sutton would take her side” and to offer details about the judge’s “indignation” and what she told her law clerks behind closed doors.
The book, thankfully, omits the daily journalist’s usual attribution impedimenta of “said in an interview” and “according to documents.” It would have been well-served by footnotes to affirm precise sourcing, and an index would have been helpful. Nor can “Love Wins” be considered the definitive account of the Supreme Court and same-sex marriage. That would require fuller attention to the high court’s own dynamics and evolving jurisprudence. It fell to Obergefell that his name came first, but it took multiple lawsuits on behalf of multiple parties to ripen at the court, and these, too, have stories behind them.
“Love Wins” does not exhaust the topic of marriage equality, but it is an exemplary account that anyone, no matter his or her ideological orientation, might read with both pleasure and insight.
“Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality,” by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell. Published by William Morrow. $27.99.
Michael Doyle is a reporter in the Washington bureau of McClatchy newspapers and an author of two non-fiction books. He earned a Master of Studies in Law from Yale Law School and has covered the Supreme Court.