In 1997, three same-sex couples, Stan Baker and Peter Harrigan, Holly Puterbaugh and Lois Farnham, and Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles from Chittenden County sued their towns after the state rejected their marriage applications.
At the time, the law wasn’t clear about laws for gay marriage– it wasn’t something people had tried to do.
On December 20, 1999, The Vermont Supreme Court heard their case, called Baker v. Vermont. The result, three years later, was civil unions, a right that allowed homosexual couples to have the same benefits and protection as heterosexual couples.
The legal question the court focused on was: May the State of Vermont exclude same-sex couples from the benefits and protections that its laws provide to the opposite-sex married couples? The rejection of marriage licenses went against ch. 1, article 7 in the Vermont Constitution: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community…”
Denise Johnson was one of five justices present for Baker v. Vermont. Johnson was born in Michigan, attended Wayne State University and the University of Connecticut School of Law before practicing law in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1978, she moved to Vermont to start teaching at Vermont Law School.
Over the next twelve years, Johnson moved around to different law practices in Vermont. In 1990, she became an Associate Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. In 2012, Johnson retired from the Vermont Supreme Court. She’s now in her 70s and she said she was proud of the decision she made and said she would make the same decision over again if she had a choice.
Before civil unions, Vermont never explicitly had a law allowing or not allowing gay couples to marry. As Johnson put it, “the state never denied that the reason they didn’t get the license was because they were same-sex couples.”
Johnson felt that “the state couldn’t come up with a good reason for not giving the benefits of marriage”. She was also disappointed with how marriage “wasn’t really, seriously on the table,” for same-sex couples “even though they held hearings about it.”
She didn’t see how same-sex couples getting married would affect heterosexual relationships. “That was an argument, it could wreck marriage,” Johnson said. “Well, who’s wrecking your marriage?”
The justices all agreed that the couples deserved the same protection and benefits as heterosexual couples. They disagreed with how they should handle their request. Two of the justices, including Johnson, thought that “the case should’ve stopped at the court” and that “they shouldn’t have had to then go prove their case to the legislature.”
Johnson and the other justice felt that the right to protection and benefits should’ve been granted in court, without needing a new law. . Ultimately, against what Johnson would have chosen, the case ended up going to Vermont’s Legislature to be given the final opinion through a majority vote.
“I was sorry that they were going to the legislature… they had to start all over,” Johnson said. However, she “felt good” because she thought that giving the couples a chance at marriage “was the right thing to do.”
Civil unions caused commotion once it was legalized by the legislature eight months later. There were many people in Vermont who disagreed with it and protested with the slogan “Take Back Vermont” in front of the statehouse to try to make the legislature reverse their verdict.
“When it went to the legislature,” Johnson said, “some people lost their seats because they voted in favor of civil unions.”
Vermont’s Supreme Court handling of this case attracted worldwide attention.
“We were kinda the center of the universe for a very short time while this case was being heard,” Johnson said. “People all over the world were watching.”
For Johnson, the case brought up an important question: “What are the rights we have because we live in a democratic society?”