Coffin lecture


As previously reported (A long way – 10/16/2015), Mary Bonauto was this year’s speaker for the Coffin lecture at the University of Maine Law School, which took place last night.  It was a packed house, with many judges (I believe I saw at least Judges Kayatta, and Lipez and Chief Judge Saufley) and illuminati (e.g., US Attorney Delahanty, Peter Mills) in attendance, along with lots of law students.

Mary gave a whiz bang speech – explaining the history of the fight for marriage equality from the 1970’s to Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S.  in a little over an hour.  I believe these lectures are published in the law review, and some seem to be uploaded onto iTunes or YouTube.  If you are looking for a concise, well written and pretty exciting account of that history, this shouldn’t be missed.  There was also a very nice intro by an ex-Coffin clerk, Harvey Shulman, so you should try to catch that too.  Cathy gets bored easily listening to talks, but this one was really, really good.

Random thoughts occurred to me listening to this speech, from the thoughtful to the not so much.  For example:

–       The big decisions were as close as you can get, e.g., 4:3 (Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941) and 5:4 (Obergefell).  In a few years, that slim ratio, and how close things were to swinging the other way, will probably be forgotten.  But think about Mary and this cause, living on these knife edges.  Historians have moved away from “the Great Man” focus, which looks at individual personalities and how they shaped history (e.g., monarchs and leaders), to a more class or institutional focus.  But here’s one area – appellate rulings – where individual action really can count.  In this instance, not only the individual judges on these panels made a difference, but so did Mary.  I believe that the exquisite timing of the progress of this movement is largely due to her efforts, and what would have happened had she not calibrated that timing and held that path together might have been very different.

–       Possibly the two most riveting presentations I have heard in the last decade have been about fighting for LGBT rights – this one, and a speech Susan Collins gave explaining how she got rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  (That one was about an hour, too, and I heard it twice – and it was great both times around).  Why is this?  Is it the subject matter – civil rights for a disadvantaged class?  Is it the gravitation of smart people to an interesting cause? 

–       Harvey Shulman noted some shared characteristics of Mary and Frank Coffin, aka “Yoda” (see my previous blogs on Judge Coffin here – Coffin celebration – 5/10/2010; Frank Coffin – 12/08/09).  For example, they both shared being really smart and really nice.  Schulman did not comment on one particular shared trait, however – they both packed a lot of punch in small physiques.  Mary is a towering five feet tall.  Judge Coffin I think had a few inches on that, but not much more.  Good things can come in small packages.  And both from Maine!