On June 25, 2014, and the next day, I officiated over 50 same-sex marriages. For reasons I did not expect, it may have changed my life.
Judges and lawyers are trained to think. But they also apply discretion, advocate, counsel, find solutions and solve problems. Over and among all the things we do, there is always one large, necessary intangible: connecting as human beings to others.
It is undeniable that we have to get along with our colleagues, clients and litigants. As professionals, we are in fact bound to do so. But we judges and lawyers share an even higher calling. We are stewards of the American system of justice. So, we are obligated to ensure public trust in the law or else suffer public disorder. We are the ones whose daily considerations include the public interest as well as the needs of private individuals. We represent unattractive clients, argue unpopular positions and make reviled decisions because that’s what it takes to run a free society.
By carrying the special burden of ensuring legal access for all, the careers of judges and lawyers are chock full of unique human beings unlike any other job. We see people who have fired employees, been hurt by their neighbors, fought with their business partners, hired the wrong guy to remodel their kitchen, been denied much-needed tax exemptions, were run over by a bus, or stole their children from a hated spouse. Our professional skills will always include the ability to serve others, even when the “others” are disconnected to us. If we don’t do it, or can’t do it, the alternative is simply unacceptable. The system will only be a partial system, and that is no system at all. Our stock and trade are human relationships.
I have married more couples than I can remember over almost 34 years as a lawyer and judge. When a court decision allowed same-sex marriages, the Marion County Clerk’s Office was deluged, so I pitched in to help. I do not carry any flag for same-sex equality or gay rights. I do not publicly advocate one way or the other. But I do know what I saw on June 25. It was uncommon and extraordinary.
I saw people who left their jobs to run downtown, get married and rush back. They were the kind of people I have known all my life – ordinary people who get up every day, go to work, pay taxes and turn this Earth on its axis.
I saw people with gleeful children and beaming parents.
I saw people who have been together for decades.
I saw people who had exchanged rings (on their own) so long ago they couldn’t get them off to do it again.
I saw people of every means, walk of life, background and religion.
I saw a lot of very long hugs.
I saw several of our colleagues.
I saw a lot of tears.
At the end of a very long day and night, I felt more optimistic about human beings than I can ever remember feeling. That is something I did not expect. Before, all my marriage ceremonies united a man and a woman in their 20s or 30s. On June 25, I united people literally of all adult ages (yes, two in their 80s). In the past, my happy couples had known each other a couple of years or so, it seemed. Last week, these delirious couples had spent most of their adult lives together, some for as many as 30 to 40 years. The people I have married before were always hopeful it would last. The people I married on June 25 already know. As a practical matter, they have already been married a long time. For me, it was just all different.
As a judge, I know these new same-sex spouses will disappoint each other. People always do. But these weddings were so full of vitality and depth that a boundless optimism filled the entire City-County Building. Even if this window of opportunity never opens again, these newlyweds don’t actually care in the long run. I don’t either. What really happened won’t be taken away.
Alexis de Tocqueville liked lawyers. He wrote that when “the American people is intoxicated by passion and carried away by the impetuosity of its ideas, it is checked and stopped by the almost invisible influence of its legal counselors.”
As a lawyer, I was privileged to be the legal, and invisible, part of these marriages, even if they don’t last or other judges do not later recognize them. It’s all part of that quality that we lawyers all share: connecting with literally anyone, especially when they really need you.•
Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.