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In a town meeting hall in Leicester, Vt., last July, a justice of the peace concluded a civil union ceremony between two men, pronouncing it complete “by the power vested in me by the state of Vermont.” In the audience were two friends of the couple, attorneys Susan M. Murray and Beth Robinson, who had spent the previous six years making sure the justice could legally utter those words. The two partners at the Middlebury, Vt., offices of Langrock Sperry & Wool filed a suit in 1997 that resulted in a landmark Vermont Supreme Court ruling last December. The court ordered the Legislature to give gay couples the same rights and protections enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. But their work was far from over, as Murray, 42, a family law practitioner, and Robinson, 35, a personal injury specialist, discovered shortly after the ruling was handed down. They spent the bulk of this year battling over the form the law would take and making sure it would pass. After Democratic Governor Howard Dean signed the bill on April 26, they spent the rest of the year campaigning to protect the seats of the legislators who had voted for it. With the help of Mary L. Bonauto of Boston’s Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Murray and Robinson executed what experts say was the biggest single step in achieving equality for gay couples. Evan Wolfson, marriage project director for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, hails their work as a “tremendous triumph,” adding, “They are true heroes of equality, not only for their brilliant legal work but for their constant attention to making sure that political organizing and public education accompany their legal work.” FROM ‘BAKER’ TO THE ELECTION Vermont’s law allows same-sex couples from any state who are at least 18 years old or over and not closely related to apply for a civil union license. The law allows rights including guardianship, medical decision-making, and treatment as an economic unit for state tax purposes. Unlike with marriages, though, it remains unknown whether other states will recognize Vermont civil unions. After the two lawyers had spent five years educating Vermonters about gay marriage through their Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, and eventually litigating Baker v. State up to the Vermont high court, the ruling, which tasked the Legislature with enacting a bill to grant same-sex couples the rights given heterosexual couples, caught them by surprise. “This was a win — but,” says Murray, “we certainly knew we had our work cut out for us in the Legislature.” Faced with a growing opposition movement, the two lawyers created a lobbying group, the Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee, which hired lobbyists, and later formed a political action committee, Vermonters for Civil Unions, to buttress the re-election campaigns of legislators who had voted for the law. “We were shooting from the hip a lot,” says Robinson. “We’re litigators,” adds Murray. “Up until this year I wouldn’t have remotely described myself as a lobbyist.” They put their practices on hold, as they often had done during the past several years, and traveled back and forth to Montpelier, the state capital, for months at a time, testifying and buttonholing legislators while keeping an eye on drafts of the new law. The rest of the time, they tried to raise money and educate the public through meetings and ads. It took some time before the lawyers conceded that the Legislature wasn’t going to grant full marriage status to same-sex couples, but when they settled on the term “civil union,” Robinson says, “people became very attached to the phrase.” But the traditionally liberal state was shaken to its core by the debate, with conservatives mounting a “Take Vermont Back” and “Remember in November” campaign that used the bill’s passage as a hammer at the polls. Robinson, who has the intense, pragmatic mien of a litigator, says that the results of Vermont’s March 7 “town meeting day” convinced her that civil unions would figure prominently in the election. Resolutions against gay marriage were being offered in various conservative towns across the state, but the lawyers didn’t take them seriously because of their nonbinding nature. Although only a small percentage of residents voted, the public relations effect was substantial. Murray, sitting in her office overlooking a quiet street of law offices in well-preserved houses, says that the vitriolic tone of the law’s opponents backfired in her traditionally genteel state: “That’s not how you do business in Vermont.” The two share an air of melancholy over the Legislature’s refusal to grant same-sex couples equal footing with heterosexual couples. “It’s marriage light,” says Murray, betraying more than a hint of bitterness. GROUNDBREAKING VICTORY Nevertheless, their victory has been viewed as groundbreaking for gay rights. “Their work can be a blueprint for a global improvement in the perception and rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered” people, says Kathryn D. Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Their effort was no pro bono fluke at their 23-lawyer firm, Langrock Sperry & Wool. All lawyers are informally required to dedicate at least 25 percent of their time to “giving back,” says firm founder Peter F. Langrock, through pro bono, reduced-fee work or community service. With the heads of a deer, a bear and even a fish mounted on his office wall — but no computer on his desk — Langrock, 62, cuts a bit of an odd figure at such a politically liberal firm; he says that he is sometimes taunted by his more politically correct attorneys. But it is his ethic of professionalism and what he calls “fun” cases that fuel his firm’s pro bono spirit and, by extension, its effort on behalf of the civil union law. “They [all] have to make some financial sacrifices,” he says. “The idea of professionalism is going to outweigh compensation.” Also keeping the firm afloat, he adds, is a business manager who made a living “betting on the horses.” If any firm were to learn a lesson from the unique circumstances of his firm, Langrock emphasizes that lawyers can be highly motivated to pursue moneymaking cases when they know they can also “push the edge of the envelope.” Murray and Robinson took months at a time to work on the civil union law, not taking any new cases while other partners picked up the slack. And in 2001, their battle may continue. With a new Republican majority in the state house, due in part to the heated debate over civil unions, both Robinson and Murray say the fight to preserve their initial victory isn’t over yet. Robinson concedes that it is unlikely that Vermont will be the first state to enact a gay marriage law. “People are tired of fighting,” she says. But the two lawyers are adamant that they will continue to defend their gains. Robinson says she and her partner plan a civil union next summer. On the other hand, Murray says she will not be seeking a license with her partner of 14 years, explaining that “she is somewhat superstitious about rocking the boat.”

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