Terry Stewart: Invisible to many, a key player in trial

Therese Stewart

Therese Stewart

SAN FRANCISCO – The fact that Therese Stewart didn’t get much publicity during the landmark federal court trial challenging Proposition 8 isn’t really a surprise: Lesbians do tend to be invisible.

But Therese (pronounced tuh-REZ) Stewart had a fairly visible role—right up there with the big guns of Ted Olson, David Boies, and Charles Cooper –the nationally known attorneys at the center of the publicity.

Stewart, known as Terry to family and friends, gave an opening statement for the City of San Francisco, right after Olson did for the plaintiff couples and Cooper did for the Yes on 8 defense. She provided direct examination of George Chauncey, an expert witness on the history of gay discrimination. And she’ll be giving a closing argument, too.

She was born in San Francisco in 1957 and grew up in Marin, thinking she might run for Congress someday. As a kid, she recalls, she put on a man’s suit and carried a briefcase that, in retrospect should have been a hint that she might grow up to be gay.

“But I didn’t figure it out til I was 24,” said Stewart. Her spouse, Carole Scagnetti, an attorney and head of Marriage Equality USA, teases her about that.

She was smart, as a kid, and liked theatre—and that, she says, evolved naturally toward a career in law.

She got her law degree at University of California at Berkeley and now supervises about 100 other attorneys in the City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s litigation office.

Herrara, Stewart, and a team of other attorneys from that office have been defending the city’s position that same-sex couples should be able to marry. It’s a legal battle Mayor Gavin Newsom engaged in February 2004, when he directed city officials to treat gay couples equally. And they’ve been involved in it long before this trial Perry v. Schwarzenegger. Stewart, in fact, delivered the oral argument for the city’s position before the California Supreme Court in 2008, winning the decision that led to same-sex couples being able to marry in the state.

She’s also been serving in an unofficial role as a sort of sounding board for several national gay legal organizations that are naturally very interested in the outcome of the trial. Those groups sought to be named as intervenors in the case but were rejected by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker.

Stewart says she sees some representatives from the groups in the courtroom every day—such as Shannon Minter and Christopher Stoll of the National Center for Lesbian Rights—and she checks in with others, like Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

“We don’t want the right hand and left hand working at cross purposes,” explained Stewart, noting that GLAD has its own litigation concerning same-sex marriages, awaiting action in a federal court in Boston.

But she’s also clear that she and San Francisco attorneys are not setting strategy in the case. That’s the role of Olson and Boies and she seems very confidant about the work they’re doing. In particular, she praises Boies as “an amazing trial lawyer.”

“Nobody in the nation has the trial skills he has,” said Stewart.

She seems comfortable with the skills she has and, while she may not be all that visible in publicity surrounding this trial, she is well known to the gay legal community nationally and to the community here in San Francisco.

On a recent afternoon, as she was walking away from the federal courthouse in downtown San Francisco with rush hour traffic clogging up the intersection as she was preparing to cross the street, a man driving a large freight truck rolled down his window and yelled out to her.

“Hey!” he said. “I know you! Thank you for all you’ve done for us!”

3 Responses to Terry Stewart: Invisible to many, a key player in trial

  1. Bill says:

    Love you a lot, but the more correct statement concerning Terry Stewart would have been that Lesbians “used” to be invisible. She is not invisible –as the truck driver who called out his thanks to her proved. People like Terry Stewart are changing that invisibility on all levels –from the highest levels to the lowest.

    – Bill (Seattle)

  2. Linda Tyler says:

    Thank you for all that you are doing for all of us who cannot speak for ourselves. My partner and I live in the Bay Area and have been together 30 years and have tremendous faith in you to present the closing argument in the Prop 8 trial.

  3. GI Jersey says:

    The fact that Terry has the skills, fortitude and courage to speak on behalf of so many of us that can’t speak openly for ourselves, makes me proud and extremely grateful. The war on equality is being waged on various fronts across our great nation thanks to Terry, various organizations like SLDN/GLAD and the Leadership of our esteemed Department Of Defense (Gates/Mullen). I can only hope and pray that one day I will be able to serve my country openly in the profession of arms, in both combat and in peace, as a proud and patriotic American. Hooah!

Leave a Reply