Gay marriage: Why presence of chief justice's lesbian cousin at court matters

The lesbian cousin of Chief Justice John Roberts will attend this week's historic arguments on gay marriage as his guest. Some prominent politicians have changed their stand on gay marriage because of relatives, but for a justice, the impact is unknown.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Chief Justice John Roberts (l.) and fellow Supreme Court justices applaud before President Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

Chief Justice John Roberts’s lesbian cousin will attend this week’s historic arguments at the Supreme Court on gay marriage as a guest of the conservative justice.

That news, reported by The Los Angeles Times, adds a new dimension to two cases already steeped in emotion. The first case, to be heard Tuesday, centers on Proposition 8, which bars same-sex couples in California from marrying. Justice Roberts’s cousin, Jean Podrasky, lives in San Francisco and wants to marry her partner.  

On Wednesday, the court will hear another gay marriage case, on the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as one man and one woman for the purpose of federal benefits.

The presence of Roberts’s cousin brings to the fore an age-old question: how judges – all the way up to US Supreme Court justices – are affected by their personal experiences, as well as those of loved ones. Roberts, of course, will rule based on his reading of the Constitution, and not out of any personal involvement with the issue.

But the news that his lesbian cousin – who attended his confirmation hearing in 2005, and was introduced by Roberts along with other family members – will attend the arguments shows that, at the very least, Roberts has had the opportunity to consider the issue of gay marriage through the experience of a family member, like many Americans.

In recent years, millions of Americans have changed their views on gay marriage, as seen in the dramatic rise in support for the idea in opinion polls. For elected officials, gay family members can provide the impetus for a public change of heart, at times politically risky depending on the state and the politician’s party affiliation.

Recently, Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio – a short-lister for the GOP presidential ticket last fall – announced he now supports gay marriage, revealing that his college-age son came out as gay two years ago. The son, Yale University junior Will Portman, published a column Monday in the Yale Daily News on his coming-out experience.

In 2004, then-Vice President Dick Cheney became one of the first top Republicans to announce support for gay marriage, after his daughter, Mary Cheney, came out.

Roberts’s cousin is hopeful about what her famous relative will do.  

“He is a smart man,” Ms. Podrasky told the L.A. Times. “He is a good man. I believe he sees where the tide is going. I do trust him. I absolutely trust that he will go in a good direction.”

Podrasky is Roberts’s first cousin on his mother’s side; Roberts’s mother is her godmother. She arrived in Washington on Sunday with her partner of four years, Grace Fasano. Podrasky obtained courtroom seats by e-mailing Roberts’s sister and then going through his secretary, according to the Times. Roberts knows she is gay and knows she will be there, the paper reports.

Podrasky says she has no knowledge of her cousin’s views on same-sex marriage, though she expects the high court to overturn Prop. 8.

“Everyone in this country has a family member who is part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community…,” she wrote in a column for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, obtained in advance by the L.A. Times. “As a Californian, I want nothing more than to marry my wonderful girlfriend. And as a tax-paying citizen, I seek basic fairness.”

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