Remembering Martha Sosman

Supreme Judicial Court Justice Martha Sosman died of respiratory failure Saturday, after a two-year battle with breast cancer. She was 56.

WBUR's Fred Thys remembers Sosman, and explores how the legal debate over gay marriage will play a major part in the legacy she leaves.


FRED THYS: Martha Sosman was working on the court despite her struggles with breast cancer, and she demonstrated that until the end, she was at the top of her game, one of the court's sharpest minds, and most trenchant questioners.

Last December, Sosman was present when the Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments about Governor Mitt Romney's lawsuit to force the legislature to vote on a petition to place a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the ballot.

At issue in the case was whether the legislature was constitutionally obligated to vote on a citizen petition to amend the constitution.

Attorney-General Peter Sacks suggested that the court had no power to force the legislature to take a vote, and if the people believed that the legislature was violating the constitution, they could vote legislators out.

Sosman came back with this remark.

MARTHA SOSMAN: Can't think of any other instance where this court has said that a remedy for constitutional violations is to go to the ballot box, and if the majority of the people are still happy with there having there be a constitutional violation, the constitution can continue to be violated. It's an odd position to take.

FRED THYS: The clicking sound, kind of like one half of the swing of a metronome, was the sound of an oxygen tank that Sosman was using.

The court ruled that the legislature did have to vote, and the legislature moved the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage forward.

Sosman was appointed to the court by Governor Paul Cellucci in 2000. Gay marriage was the huge issue for much of Sosman's term, and in 2003, she found herself writing the minority opinion in the landmark Goodridge case recognizing gay marriage that has served as the great social divider in this country ever since.

Sosman wrote: "Of course, many people are raising children outside the confines of traditional marriage, and, by definition, those children are being deprived of the various benefits that would flow if they were being raised in a household with married parents.

That does not mean that the Legislature must accord the full benefits of marital status on every household raising children."

Sosman found herself on opposing sides with Chief Justice Margaret Marshall. Last night, Marshall said Sosman "always penetrated to the heart of the matter."

Marshall said Sosman "had a formidable intellect." Sosman found herself on the minority on the court in the Goodrige case, but the rash of anti-gay-marriage state constitutional amendments passed since Goodridge seem to place Sosman in the mainstream of current American public opinion.

For WBUR, I'm Fred Thys

This program aired on March 12, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.


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