Reflecting on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, the Hon. Jeffrey L. Amestoy ’68, P’11, P’14, the 38th Chief Justice of Vermont’s Supreme Court, said, “I think today…the Supreme Court caught up with the country, but I think the rest of the country caught up with Vermont.”
In 1999, Amestoy authored the Vermont Supreme Court’s opinion in Baker v. State, which held that same-ex couples were constitutionally entitled to the rights and benefits of marriage. In that opinion, Amestoy anticipated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision when he wrote that “to acknowledge [that] the plaintiffs…seek nothing more, nor less, than legal protection and security for their avowed commitment to an intimate and lasting human relationship is simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity.”
In an article on the Burlington, Vt.-based WCAX news website after the SCOTUS ruling last week, Amestoy said that “when the civil union case was argued and the decision was handed down in 1999, it was an extraordinarily difficult one for Vermonters to confront because…homosexuality was never discussed in any kind of an open context and certainly not in the context of a decision which gave some structure to the civil rights implication of same-sex marriage.”
Amestoy previously served seven terms as Attorney General of Vermont and held the position of president of the National Association of Attorneys General from 1992 to 1993. In 1996, he was nominated by then-Governor Howard Dean to be Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, was confirmed by the Senate and took office in 1997, serving until 2004. It was during his time as Chief Justice that the issue of equality for same-sex couples arose most prominently in Vermont. In 1994, the landmark case, Baker v. State, led to a 1999 state Supreme Court decision Amestoy authored.
As he told the Pulteney Street Survey earlier this year, “I am grateful that I was able to contribute to a decision that advanced human rights.”
“There wasn’t much talk of the need for equal rights for same-sex couples before the ruling,” he recalled. “Gay rights organizations including individuals active in Vermont, were working for recognition of same-sex couples but in 1998, there were only two states that had courts that even attempted to recognize same-sex relationships. One was in Hawaii, in which their Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage and it was almost immediately overturned by popular vote. And in Alaska, a court ruled for same-sex marriage and then in a constitutional amendment overruled it. So on the legal front, there hadn’t been any successes.”
After the ruling, Vermont was the first state to institute civil unions for same-sex couples — a controversial policy at the time. There were calls for Amestoy’s impeachment.
Baker v. State sparked a national conversation that has led to monumental change. “One of the consequences of the decision was it was an enormous contribution to the public dialogue,” Amestoy said. “It demonstrated to the rest of the country that it was possible to discuss the issue in ways that were civil and constructive. One of the contributions the language of this decision could make was to frame the discussion in human terms while providing a legal structure. It was important to set the context of the discussion in terms that relate to human rights.”
When “people began to discuss the issue in human terms,” Amestoy said, it opened doors for marriage equality from coast to coast.
In April 2014, Amestoy, the father of three — two of whom are William Smith graduates — was bestowed the Hobart Medal of Excellence, the Alumni Association’s highest honor, for his successful and influential career as a lawyer, Attorney General, and Chief Justice. He is currently a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Read the full story from WCAX below.
High court affirms right to same-sex marriage
The U.S Supreme Court handed down a historic decision Friday. Friday morning, the justices declared same-sex couples have the right to get married anywhere in the United States. Judy Simpson has more on this much-anticipated ruling, and the role Vermont played to pave the way.
Folks gathered at the Pride Center of Vermont in Burlington to celebrate the high court’s ruling.
“Ebullient! Absolutely joyous. It is a huge day for our community, probably the biggest ruling that we have had in any recent years,” said Kim Fountain, Pride Center Vermont.
Gay and lesbian couples already can marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The court’s ruling means the remaining 14 states in the South and Midwest will have to stop enforcing their bans on same-sex marriage.
“So for me today is just the culmination of so much work from so many people and such an exciting shift in the culture here in the U.S. and I am so proud of us and so excited,” said Hilary Boone, former Pride Center board member.
Vermont was the first state to introduce civil unions 15 years ago. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that under Vermont’s constitution, gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights and benefits that married couples have. But the justices left it to the Legislature to decide if that should be done through same-sex marriage or another way. That other way was Vermont’s civil unions law.
“I think today, I think the Supreme Court caught up with the country, but I think the rest of the country caught up with Vermont,” Jeff Amestoy said.
Amestoy was the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court at the time. He acknowledged it was a very controversial issue.
“And when the civil union case was argued and the decision was handed down in 1999, it was an extraordinarily difficult one for Vermonters to confront because the whole issue of gay marriage, homosexuality was never discussed in any kind of an open context and certainly not in the context of a decision which gave some structure to the civil rights implication of same-sex marriage,” said Amestoy.
And while the country is still divided over the issue of same-sex marriage, Amestoy says the institution of marriage is well worth upholding.
“So I think those who honor marriage ought to embrace this decision because it recognizes the values of marriage and I think if anything we ought to welcome more couples to the stablization of marriage rather than the alternative, which I think is all kinds of dysfunctional families which is true of heterosexual couples some times,” said Amestoy.
As Amestoy wrote back in 1999, “the plaintiffs seek nothing more or less than legal protection and security for their avowed commitment to an intimate and lasting human relationship is simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity.”