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Our Pal Al

Our Pal Al

Blog entry by: Candace McCoy and Marianna Brown Bettman, 9/29/2015

Our latest blog entry comes from Candace McCoy, Professor at John Jay – The Graduate Center at CUNY, and co-author Marianna Brown Bettman, Professor of Practice at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law.

When the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage was announced last week, our bunch of friends in different cities read about it on the front page of the New York Times.  The “grey lady” is the “newspaper of record,” after all, and this case was historic.

Courtesy: New York Times.

Several photos illustrated the story, and we all locked eyes on the third one.  Its caption read “James Obergefell, center, a plaintiff, sued when Ohio refused to recognize his marriage to John Arthur, who died in 2013.”  True enough.  But who is the bald bespectacled guy on the left, holding Obergefell’s arm and apparently saying something to which nobody at that time is listening?

He is Al Gerhardstein.  His image takes up half the photo frame, both literally and in importance, but the Times did not identify him.  To paraphrase the late comic Henny Youngman, it’s time to give the man some respect.

Al is Obergefell’s lawyer.  He has also served as the attorney for thousands of other people since he started to practice law in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1978.  Al is a classic example of civil rights attorneys who doggedly and creatively practice law in towns and cities nationwide, working solo or in small firms that are the antithesis of large corporate ones.  Think Atticus Finch, not “The Good Wife.”  Al and his partner Jennifer Branch  “are committed to using the law to help those on the margins of power,” according to their firm’s mission statement, meaning they represent people who claim they have been victims of racial or gender-based discrimination, people who have been mistreated by the police, inmates in inhumane prisons and jails, and whistleblowers against government abuses.

This work is enormously difficult, but deeply dedicated attorneys take it on anyway.  Only a very few ever have cases that make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Obergefell case was one of those, though Al didn’t get to argue it there despite championing it through trial and subsequent appeal in the Sixth Circuit.  When it came time to appear in the U.S. Supreme Court, Al and the hometown attorneys from other states covered by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals respectfully stepped aside to let their consolidated cases be argued by legal specialists in the civil rights of LGBT people.  Your paper and every other news outlet in the nation have now reported the results.

Pals of Al have been deeply impressed and appreciative of his skills and tireless work throughout the decades.  The Obergefell case is just his most recent, stunning achievement. Every resident of the city of Cincinnati is affected daily by the outcome of the Cincinnati Collaborative on police reform, a remarkable and sustainable program begun in 2002.  It created and implemented a new model of police-neighborhood engagement now emulated nationally.  Cities like Newark and Cleveland, which among others are subject to consent decrees negotiated with the federal Department of Justice, will be the beneficiaries of the model of “civic engagement” first developed over ten years ago in Cincinnati.

They say that success has many mothers. Everybody now claims credit for birthing the Collaborative.  But Al’s pals know it was he who insisted from the start that simply settling the lawsuits from deaths of young black men was not enough – the settlement had to include enforceable orders based on political action and grassroots story-telling.  The hard-fought result was the Collaborative for police reform.

In all the celebrations of the results of court cases in these many civil rights struggles, let’s give a bit of respect to the hometown attorneys who first take them on and fight hard in the face of derision and overwhelming political resistance.

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