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David Buckel ’87 Wins Victory for Gay Couples in New Jersey

One of the most divisive contemporary domestic issues-gay marriage- is the field in which Cornell Law School graduate David Buckel '87 is making history. The controversial New Jersey Supreme Court ruling on October 25, 2006 asserting that gay couples in the state are entitled to the same legal rights and financial benefits as heterosexual married couples stems from a case argued by Mr. Buckel, who is the senior staff attorney and director of the Marriage Project for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. The ruling, which states that gay couples have constitutional rights to equal treatment under the law, stipulates that the New Jersey legislature must expand the existing domestic partnership law or write new laws within 180 days. In essence, lawmakers must decide whether to allow gays to marry, or to develop parallel civil unions that include all of the same rights as heterosexual marriage.

The ruling was headline news across the country and immediately became a hot topic of the 2006 elections, especially in eight states with movements to constitutionally ban gay marriages. "This is the first time a state's high court has ruled unanimously that denying same-sex couples access to the benefits and rights of marriage is a violation of the guarantee of equality," says Mr. Buckel. "When I did the oral argument, I thought the bench was split as to whether there was any equal protection violation at all, but in the end the split was largely over remedy."

During his career, Mr. Buckel has advocated for gay youths and couples. Highlights include serving as lead attorney in Brandon v. Richardson County, which held a county sheriff liable for his failure to protect Brandon Teena, a murdered transgendered teen whose story was told in the film Boys Don't Cry, as well as serving as co-counsel in two Salt Lake City lawsuits concerning the rights of gay high school students to organize a club in their school. He also argued for the rights of gay youths and couples against the Boy Scouts of America, the U.S. military, the I.R.S., and a number of public school systems. Before joining the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, he was a supervising attorney at Harlem Legal Services, Inc., where he represented low-income and disabled people. Mr. Buckel returned to Cornell Law School in March 2006 to serve on a panel on "Domestic Civil Rights" for the annual Public Interest Law Career Symposium.