San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, left, and New York Times reporter Jo Becker at City Hall on Thursday. (Scott Shafer/KQED)
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, left, and New York Times reporter Jo Becker at City Hall on Thursday. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera hosted a book signing and legal victory lap in his office Thursday afternoon. The guest of honor: New York Times writer Jo Becker, whose new book, “Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality,” details the legal strategy that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court striking down Prop. 8 and allowing same-sex couples to resume getting married here after a five-year hiatus.

Herrera, whose office began its legal support of same-sex marriage in 2004 — when San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses in defiance of state law — declared the book “a spellbinder” even though he witnessed much of it firsthand.

“As I read it, I wondered what’s going to happen on the next page,” he joked.

Herrera, whom the book describes as “jovial,” also admitted a little ambivalence about “Forcing the Spring.”

“The book captured my anxiety and concern about my professional credibility really well,” he joked, referring to a passage in the book noting that the city attorney had not questioned a witness at trial in nine years before doing so during the Prop. 8 trial.

Some of Herrera’s staff attorneys, the real local heroes of the book, recalled their shock at having a reporter present as they prepared for the case behind closed doors. “It goes against everything we learned in law school,” one told me, adding it took a while to let down their guard in front of a journalist.

Becker said the collaboration of conservative attorney Ted Olson with his Bush vs. Gore nemesis David Boies was what drew her to the story. She said Olson had actually turned down Prop. 8 proponents when they asked him to defend the ban on same-sex marriage.

When asked if Olson ever remarked on the irony of his own four marriages (his third wife, Barbara Olson, died on the 9/11 flight that crashed into the Pentagon), Becker said, “Yeah, he and David Boies have, I think, seven marriages between them, so they joked that they’re really pro-marriage.”

Becker said in exchange for the extraordinary access she got, she promised not to write anything in the New York Times until the case had made its way through the U.S. Supreme Court. When asked what she’d have done if the case had turned out differently — with a less sympathetic judge than Vaughn Walker (his personal revelations and reflections are a highlight of the book), or one who didn’t order a full trial, or a less positive outcome at the Supreme Court — Becker said she was just there to document the back story of a major civil rights case.

In fact, she noted that the Supreme Court’s decision invalidating Prop. 8 on technical grounds, rather the legal team’s arguments that marriage was a fundamental right for all couples regardless of sexual orientation, was considered a disappointment.

On the flight back to California from the East Coast after the decision was announced, Becker said, the attorneys and their plaintiffs were “a little down” because they didn’t get the sweeping 50-state ruling they always wanted.

“The mood changed toward the end of the flight,” she recalled, “when Adam Umhoefer of the American Foundation for Equal Rights stood up and shouted, ‘The plane has just passed into California airspace, where all of us are treated like equal citizens.’ ”

Of course, with a series of recent rulings overturning same-sex marriage bans in states like Utah and Oklahoma making their way through federal courts, they might get that 50-state ruling yet.

‘Victory Lap’ for San Francisco’s Prop. 8 Legal Team 2 May,2014Scott Shafer


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED’s Politics and Government Desk. When he’s not asking questions you’ll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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