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social sciences

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Bonauto, Mary (b. 1961)  
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The legislature concluded its work on May 6, 2009, both houses having voted in favor of marriage equality. Within minutes of the bill reaching Governor John Baldacci's desk, the Governor signed it, ending intense speculation as to whether he might exercise his veto power.

Maine thus became the second state (after Vermont, which months earlier replaced civil unions with marriage) to enact an equal marriage law without being forced to do so by a court decision. However, despite the legislative victory, the new law never went into effect.

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Soon after Governor Baldacci signed the bill, opponents announced that they would begin the process of gathering signatures to subject the new law to a "people's veto," or public referendum. They soon submitted more than 100,000 signatures. The marriage equality law was suspended pending the results of the referendum in November 2009.

Despite an effective and well-financed campaign to retain marriage equality in Maine, in which Bonauto was a prominent spokesperson and debater on behalf of equal rights, the referendum to veto the law passed by a margin of 53% to 47%.

The defeat sent shock waves through the glbtq community, raising the question of whether it would ever be possible for marriage equality to prevail at the polls, at least until the most demographic--those over 65 years of age--died off.

However, instead of despairing over the defeat, Maine activists, including Bonauto, went about the work of attempting to convince voters to change their minds. In 2012, they began collecting signatures to place another referendum on the Maine ballot. For the first time, marriage equality activists took the offensive and qualified a referendum that would authorize same-sex marriage.

After the electoral loss in Maine in 2009, Bonauto returned to litigating marriage equality cases. Although she had earlier counseled against challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which effectively bars federal recognition of legal same-sex marriages, she decided the time had come to launch an assault against it.

In order to challenge DOMA, Bonauto filed a lawsuit on behalf of individual plaintiffs, Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management, which was tried together with a lawsuit brought by the Office of the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that also challenged DOMA.

In July 2010, Judge Joseph L. Tauro declared Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, ruling that this section, which limits federal recognition of marriage to heterosexual couples, violates the Fifth Amendment's equal protection principles and the Tenth Amendment's reservation of unenumerated powers to the states.

Bonauto reacted to the decision by saying, "Today the court simply affirmed that our country won't tolerate second-class marriages." Characteristically, she added: "This ruling will make a real difference for countless families in Massachusetts."

In November 2010, Bonauto filed another lawsuit challenging Section 3 of DOMA, Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management. The plaintiffs are five couples and a widower from Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire, who solely because of DOMA have been denied legal protections for which they are otherwise eligible.

On May 31, 2012, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the decision of Judge Tauro and declared section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional in the combined cases of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Massachusetts v. United States. These cases were thought likely to be accepted by the Supreme Court of the United States for review during the 2012-2013 term, but the Court decided to accept another case, Windsor v. United States, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had declared unconstitutional.

On July 31, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut found DOMA unconstitutional in Pedersen v. Office of Personel Management.

The Pedersen case is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Its outcome will depend on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on the constitutionality of DOMA, which is likely to be issued in June 2013 in connection with its review of Windsor v. United States.

Bonauto's success as a litigator in the marriage equality cases has cemented her reputation as one of the country's most capable gay rights attorneys. But Bonauto is not only an attorney, she is also an activist and a political tactician.

Tobias Wolff, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is an informal advisor to President Obama, has described Bonauto as "among a handful of lawyers in the inner circle of gay rights advocates, one with a rare gift to make her case in public, using measured tones rather than heated rhetoric."

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