Catherine Roraback, R.I.P.

            Any publication that devotes itself to promoting liberty, like this blog, must stop for a moment to take note of the passing of one of the giants in the never-ending battle for freedom. Connecticut attorney Catherine Roraback died last week at the age of 87. While she left no survivors other than a sister who announced her death, she did leave an enormous legacy for which we all should be grateful.

            “Katy,” as she was known to friends and colleagues, was the brilliant legal strategist behind the test case Griswold v. Connecticut, which challenged a Connecticut statute banning the sale of contraceptives. The Supreme Court heard the case in 1965 and found by a 7-to-2 vote that the antiquated Connecticut law was an unconstitutional violation of a newly-conceived zone of personal, intimate privacy.

Griswold v. Connecticut announced the right of married couples to obtain contraceptives from their physicians. Roraback represented Estelle Griswold, the executive director of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut, as well as Dr. Charles Buxton, the head obstetrician/gynecologist at the Yale School of Medicine. After years of trying to engineer a strategy for testing a mid-19th century statute criminalizing both the prescription and use of contraceptives, Griswold and Buxton, with Katy at their side, engaged in civil disobedience and opened a birth-control clinic in New Haven – this, in a heavily Catholic state and at a time when few would have dreamed that  the “due process of law” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment would include such a right.

            Katy’s Griswold strategy was brilliant, and successful, because it used as the opening wedge into the “zone of intimate privacy” area of the due process clause not only a married couple who wanted to enjoy sex without procreation, but also a clinic and a reputable physician who were fighting for the right to treat their patients without the state looking over their shoulders (or into the bedroom, as the case may be). This successful strategy was replicated later, through a series of high court opinions that legalized the prescription of contraceptives for unmarried couples, then the right of a woman to get, and a physician to give, an abortion, and, then, the right of same-sex couples to engage in intimate relations without the storm troopers bursting into the bedroom. As we in Massachusetts know, all of this groundwork led the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to declare same-sex marriage a constitutional right under the nation’s oldest state constitution.

            We can trace all of these rights in large measure to the brilliance, persistence and courage of this remarkable lawyer, who graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1941 and was the only woman in her Class of 1948 at the Yale Law School.  Katy was a mentor as well to younger lawyers, particularly women trial lawyers who had a hard time breaking into certain legal fields traditionally closed to women, most notably criminal defense, civil liberties, and civil rights. Tough as nails, Katy represented not only establishment types like the head of obstetrics at Yale, but also the head of the radical Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, tried in 1971 for the murder of another party member suspected of disloyalty (resulting in a mistrial).

            Katy Roraback will be deeply missed by many, but her legacy is constantly with us to remind us of what a single brilliant, courageous and persistent person can accomplish in a single lifetime.

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