Interview: He Brought Same-Sex Marriage To Iowa

A few moments ago, I spoke with Dennis Johnson, lead co-counsel for the same-sex couples who, on Friday, won the right to marry in Iowa. Johnson, a former solicitor of Iowa, is the head of litigation at Dorsey & Whitney LLP. For four years, Johnson worked with Lambda Legal on this case.

Were you surprised at how comprehensive the ruling was? Were you surprised at the State Supreme Court's unanimity?

"It was clear that the court understood the historical significance of this. Normally, you have ten minutes for arguments.  They gave us each 30 minutes. And then, during argument, they said, forget about the time limits. They treated it as a very historical case. One of the reasons this case was filed in Iowa [was that the state has a] history of being, progressive, of protecting individual liberties. If you read the opinion, they make references to decisions as early as 1839 [like the one] prohibiting slavery in Iowa. They were pretty mindful of that. The fact that they were unanimous - I wasn't completely surprised by that. I've been before these justices. They're a pretty intelligent group, and they've demonstrated in the past that they were not afraid to rule on the law the way they see it."

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What does the ruling say about Iowa? The coastal elites and even some of the late night comedians poked a little fun...

"It really is a progressive state. We do have a strong presence of the religious right but they are not the majority in this state. The majority of the people here are pretty open minded and pretty tolerant. It's not an accident that we catapulted Barack Obama to the White House. We're 97% white. If they lived in Iowa, they wouldn't be [surprised.] The other thing that I noticed: I was working on this case since 2005, and there have been big shifts in attitudes in Iowa during those four years. People were at first were a little bit put off... it was too foreign to anything they thought about. Eventually, they came around to civil unions; eventually, they opened up to same-sex marriage. I noticed it with some of our politicians. Did you see the statement that our Senate Majority Leader, Mike Gronstal, put it? Four years ago, when we filed this lawsuit, he was very guarded on this issue. Now, he's a strong supporter.  So I saw that trend happening, partly because people had time to think about it and talk about it..

The earliest that this can be overturned by any sort of vote is 2013? 2012?

"2012; they can put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2012. Iowans are going to be getting married for three and years. We have same-sex couples in every county in Iowa; a third of them have children. They live in small towns and big towns and everything. When they get married and they continue to reside in the community and the sky doesn't fall in, people are gonna say, there's nothing wrong with this."

So how did you get involved with this? It consumed four years of your life..

Broadly - I'd never been involved as an activist in this cause or any cause. I was a commercial litigator. My firm had a policy that they wanted us to put about five percent of our hours into pro-bono work.  I got a call from Camilla Taylor at Lambda Legal - I hadn't really heard of them at that point - asking if I would consider being co-counsel on this case.  I didn't know much about the subject, but then I took a look at the law and it didn't take long for me to see that it was a good case."