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Taking a Historic Role

Tuesday, Jun 30, 2015

She joined the AHA brief in same-sex marriage case

Diana Williams, a USC historian with a courtesy appointment at the Gould School of Law, was a signatory to the American Historical Association (AHA)’s brief submitted in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case establishing marriage equality for same-sex couples as a federal constitutional right in all 50 states

The landmark ruling is an important step toward recognizing civil rights of people of all sexual orientations in the nation, said Williams. For decades, proponents of marriage equality have argued that the government’s refusal to recognize marriages between same-sex couples was a dignitary assault and compromised the safety and well-being of families. 

Obergefell doesn’t just make history; it also makes an important point about history,” Williams said. “We need to look backward and acknowledge the real social and legal disabilities suffered by those whose relationships did not survive the legalization moment.”

The AHA’s amicus brief provided U.S. Supreme Court justices with the resources needed to rebut the claim that they were changing “traditional marriage,” said Williams.

“Even within the short span of U.S. history, courts have recognized and promoted changing the definition of marriage. Being able to make historical arguments in the age of originalism can be critical to a litigant’s success," said Williams.

This was true in the 2003 Lawrence decision, when historians’ work prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision criminalizing homosexuality.  

Williams teaches a variety of legal history courses. “My colleagues and I encourage an interdisciplinary approach to law through USC’s major in Law, History and Culture,” Williams explains. "Our students are uniquely positioned to offer insights on present-day controversies.”

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