In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is legal across all 50 states. Less than 20 years ago, a bipartisan Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, and a ‘liberal’ Democratic President signed it into law. Most people, even those who supported LGBT rights, never expected to see the right for same-sex couples to marry to be the law of the Land. In Iowa, the idea that the Iowa Supreme Court would rule that same-sex couple be allowed to marry was likewise thought to be unlikely. And yet, in 2009, it happened.
Equal Before The Law, written by former Des Moines Register reporters Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen, is a history of the landmark 2009 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court in the case of Varnum v. Brien. Though the book was released in June, when the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision was imminent, the publication date was fitting in hindsight, coinciding with a monumental change for gay rights under the law.
There could be several different books describing the remarkable evolution in the the country’s attitude towards same-sex marriage: partisan polemics, personal narratives of participants, or dry scholarly deconstruction. Equal Before The Law, as befits a book by newspaper reporters, places its emphasis on factual reporting and even-handed treatment of subjects on both sides of the issue.
The book begins with the story of McKinley BarbouRoske, daughter of eventual plaintiffs Jen and Dawn, who at five was upset to find out that her two moms were not married. McKinley’s personality is central to the book’s narrative, both as an appealing character and as an example of the important role same-sex couples’ children played with regard to the arguments presented to the court.
The book also gives a short history of the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution and Iowa’s history of progressive civil rights legislation and court decisions. The first article, which begins “All men are, by nature, free and equal,” bears directly on how the court found the right to same-sex marriage. When the Iowa Constitution went into effect in 1857, it would be eleven years before the 14th amendment added the concept of equal protection to the US Constitution. Equal Before The Law then describes the more recent background leading up to the 2009 decision.
But what makes the book a compelling story is how it acquaints the reader with those actually involved in the case: the same sex couples who brought suit, the judges who decided the cases, the lawyers who argued it and the politicians on both sides of the issue.
Close attention is given to the Supreme Court justices who made the historic ruling. Their personal histories and personalities are conveyed in detail based on repeated interviews. Bob Van Der Plaats, the conservative politician who campaigned against same-sex marriage, gets a similar treatment. In all cases, the various people involved in the legal battle and its aftermath are described in sympathetic and fact-based terms.
It’s clear from the start that Witosky and Hansen sympathize with the same-sex couples on the issue of equal marriage rights. They do not appear in the story—there’s nary an ‘I’ to be found—but their affection for the plaintiff couples and their children is palpable. They relish the occasional flashes of humor, like McKinley BarbouRoske’s attempt to influence the Chief Justice with a Jedi Mind trick during oral arguments.
While the book has an unmistakable point of view, the emphasis on old-fashioned reporting gives it persuasive weight. The authors spoke at length with the people at the center of the case, and undoubtedly spent considerable time with experts on Iowa’s judicial history. As befits a publication of the University of Iowa Press, the book has extensive footnotes, and should make for an invaluable resource among legal scholars.
Above all, Equal Before The Law tells an amazing story—a legal drama that weaves in the stories of the real people who brought about this historic change in civil rights. The state of Iowa plays a crucial role in this tale as well, both as an abiding political entity and in the character of its citizens throughout the last 150 years. The book gives the reader—especially Iowans—a new appreciation of the state motto, writ large on the state flag: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.”
Kent Williams lives & writes in JoCo, which is like SpoCo, but not as full of bros. This article originally appeared in Little Village Issue 182.