Evan Wolfson Delivers 2016-2017 Hart Lecture at Georgetown Law

September 30, 2016

In 1983, Evan Wolfson — who would later become the founder and president of Freedom to Marry — published a paper as a student at Harvard Law entitled “Samesex Marriage and Morality: The Human Rights Vision of the Constitution.” Wolfson’s paper asserted that same-sex couples should have the freedom to marry, a prospect that was then so unlikely that more than one professor declined to supervise his work.

The paper also asserted that same-sex couples should fight for the freedom to marry, at a time when attempts at litigation had been unsuccessful in the courts for more than a decade. The country was simply not ready. And for his efforts, the young law student received only a B.

Flash forward to 2015, when Justice Anthony Kennedy would echo points Wolfson made in that 1983 paper in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, guaranteeing same-sex couples a right to marry. “He knew that it was possible,” said Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor — who along with Associate Dean Joshua Teitelbaum introduced Wolfson at the 2016-2017 Hart Lecture on September 28. “He dedicated himself to it, and the world has changed in large part because of his vision.”

In his lecture, entitled “The Freedom to Marry Win: Transformation and Triumph to Celebrate, Lessons to Adapt and Apply,” Wolfson, now a Distinguished Visitor from Practice at the Law Center, described how he was able to add four key ingredients to this initial vision. He needed the Constitution, for starters. But to go from Baker v. Nelson — in which the Supreme Court in 1972 dismissed a challenge to a state same-sex marriage ban — to Obergefell in 2015, Wolfson would also need a movement, a strategy and a campaign.

“We understood, and learned early on, that winning through the law, and indeed changing the law, were the key,” he told the audience gathered on the 12th floor of Gewirz Student Center. “The way we would do that was not going to be centered in a question of doctrine, or litigation, or the methodology of engaging the law alone. In order to win in the law, we needed all the rest.”

Despite the 2015 win, the conversation has only just begun, Wolfson said. He called for lawyers and others to build on the momentum to protect rights and to adapt the lessons learned from the marriage campaign to other causes. “Our goal, after all, is not just good law, but good lives,” he said.

And as for that grade? While Wolfson’s paper is widely known for serving as a roadmap to victory, what may not be commonly known is the role that Dean Treanor played in the story. Treanor, in fact, not only did most of the typing — on a typewriter shaky even by 1983 standards — he also delivered the historic paper to the registrar. “The B,” Wolfson told the audience, “I can only ascribe to the typing.”