Lawsuits challenging state bans on gay marriage are piling up across the country, and winning doesn't only rest on having a compelling legal case. Building a plaintiff "dream team" is a major component of strong legal strategy.
“You want plaintiffs who are sympathetic,” explains Nova Southeastern law professor Bob Jarvis. “In front of a jury, you want to say this could be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers or you.”
That’s precisely why Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello were one of six South Florida plaintiff couples picked in an Equality Florida lawsuit to reverse the state constitution's ban on same-sex marriage.
Pareto and Arguello live with their son on a quiet street in Coconut Grove -- the kind of street that turns into an unofficial playground in the evening for the neighborhood kids. The quaint house is one of several peeking from behind lush vegetation. Hanging on the gate to their front yard is an Easter sign that says “Every bunny is welcome.”
The two have been together for 14 years. Arguello recently left her job in corporate finance to stay at home with their 1-year-old son Enzo, and Pareto is a financial planner. She says although they face certain challenges as a same-sex couple, their lives are mostly like any other family.
“We got to mow our lawn like everybody else. We got to make dinner like everybody else,” Pareto says, trying to get a fidgety and very vocal Enzo to sit still in her lap. Laughing, Arguello chimes in: “We have the same difficulty trying to sit through a dinner and a have a conversation, an adult conversation.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year, a law which denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, Equality Florida saw its opening. Deputy director Stratton Pollitzer says they put out a call for plaintiffs at events and on Facebook, asking people to send in their personal love stories.
“The response to that request was overwhelming,” says Pollitzer. “1,200 people have written to us.”
A team of lawyers from across the country then evaluated each couple to see if they had not only relatable personal stories and compelling legal cases, but also to see if the candidates could handle living in the media spotlight.
"Agreeing to be part of a lawsuit is a big decision," says Pollitzer. "You put your life in a fishbowl in a case that may be decided quickly but may go on for a few years."
Eventually, that pool of 1,200 was whittled down to just six couples representing a carefully crafted cross-section of South Florida.
In January, Equality Florida revealed those couples to the public during a press conference that felt kind of like debutante ball. Pollitzer remembers watching the plaintiffs on the day his organization announced the lawsuit.
“I looked, and every single one of them just about was trembling because they were so scared before they stepped in front of the cameras for the first time,” Pollitzer recalls.
One by one the plaintiffs walked to the podium to relate the stories of their lives and their relationships.
There was the son of a Cuban political prisoner whose partner is the son of a Northern Florida judge. There was the couple who had been together for 25 years and, after raising a child together, are now grandparents. There were couples of varying ages, professions, races and ethnicities. Several of them addressed the media in both English and Spanish.
Cherry-picking plaintiffs is nothing new.
Bob Jarvis of Nova Southeastern University says the strategy has its roots in the civil-rights movement. It’s the same tactic the NAACP used in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended segregation.
The lead plaintiff was Oliver Brown, a church-going man with a good job whose daughter had to travel miles beyond her neighborhood school to attend a segregated one.
Although the NAACP won, Jarvis says these kinds of cases -- in which the purpose is to change policy -- aren’t entirely focused on winning the individual lawsuits. There’s an ulterior motive: The publicity generated by the lawsuit, and the sympathy created by the plaintiffs placed in front of the cameras, can help change public opinion, which in turn can affect policy outside the courts.
“[NAACP] ended up picking a group of plaintiffs from Topeka, Kansas,” Jarvis says. “It’s the heartland of America, if the heartland is discriminating, that’s where you really want to strike it down.”