Just cause: Woman's landmark voting case found a willing advocate in RBG

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

What’s in a name?

Plenty if yours is Mary Stuart and your family heritage is steeped in Scottish lore.

Even more so when the name later intersects with one of the most recognizable three-letter monikers in the legal world.
RBG.

As in longtime Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose recent passing robbed the nation of perhaps its most distinguished voice in support of equal rights for all.

Ginsburg, of course, was a trailblazer in the field of gender rights, scoring a number of Supreme Court victories as an attorney en route to a seat on the nation’s highest court. In recent years, her profile was elevated to even higher levels with the release of two widely acclaimed movies, the aptly titled “RBG” and the 2018 biopic “On the Basis of Sex.”

Stuart, in turn, also played a pioneering role in the area of women’s rights, a spotlight she shared with Ginsburg in a 1972 Maryland case titled Mary Emily Stuart v. Board of Supervisors of Elections for Howard County et al.

The case arose after a Maryland judge ruled in May 1972 that the then recently married Stuart, 22 years old at the time, would have to use her husband’s last name to register to vote, in effect disenfranchising her if she decided to keep her maiden name.

For the then graduate student and future Ph.D., the ruling smacked of discrimination and forced her hand to right a legal wrong.

“I had strong feelings about keeping my name, principally to honor my Scottish heritage,” said Stuart, sister-in-law of West Bloomfield residents Linda and Alan Gershel.
“The name ‘Mary Stuart’ also has special significance as the ‘Queen of Scots,’” she added, referring to the monarch who reigned from 1542-67.

So, after registering to vote in 1972 using her maiden name, Stuart was informed by letter from the Howard County Board of Elections that she would have to use her husband’s last name instead, setting off a legal challenge that coincided with the rise of the feminist movement in the U.S.

As an added insult, Stuart was notified in June of 1972 by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration that it was revoking her driver’s license because she was using her maiden name. The agency went so far as to have a police car park by her apartment to “catch me if I decided to drive on a suspended license,” Stuart said.

“It was very intimidating and really inhibited my ability to get to school, to run errands, to enjoy life,” she said.

Initially, Stuart was joined in the court battle by a co-plaintiff, an acquaintance who found herself in a similar voting predicament if she decided to keep her maiden name. The two women were buoyed in their legal quest by the financial backing of the Marjorie Cook Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supported women’s rights causes as part of its mission.

“The Foundation made it possible to follow through on the case, since they were determined to take it as far as necessary,” Stuart indicated, noting the costly nature of such a legal journey. “I was especially grateful for their support.”

As well as that of an up-and-coming lawyer with the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus brief with the Court of Appeals in Maryland in support of Stuart.

That attorney, of course, was the diminutive Ginsburg, who eloquently and forcefully argued on behalf of a woman she had never met, dispelling the state’s notion that it was acting to prevent the possibility of voter fraud.

“I didn’t know who she was at the time or who she would become, but she was incredibly articulate and well prepared,” said Stuart, a retired professor from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who obtained her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. “She argued that I had a fundamental right under the English common law to keep my name and that there was no legal requirement that I surrender that right by virtue of getting married.”

In the conclusion of her amicus brief to the Stuart case, Ginsburg wrote: “The recent overwhelming approval of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution indicates an absolute commitment by the Congress to end discrimination based on sex. The State of Maryland, in ratifying this amendment, has similarly endorsed the right of all persons to equal treatment under the law, without distinctions as to sex.”

In a 5-1 decision, the Maryland appellate court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, reversing the Circuit Court and “setting the stage for similar litigation,” according to Stuart.

“I had received some pushback about bringing the case, with some critics saying that I was bent on ‘destroying the very fabric of America,’” Stuart related. “On the other hand, I also was heartened by all the support I received from people who believed in my willingness to fight for the right to vote and the importance of the cause it represented.”

As a footnote to the case, Stuart said she only became aware of Ginsburg’s involvement in the case a few years ago, after being informed by a reporter from The Columbia Flier (a weekly publication affiliated with The Baltimore Sun), “that the eloquent lawyer from the ACLU who provided the pivotal amicus brief at the Maryland Court of Appeals had become” Justice Ginsburg.

“I’m convinced that without Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my case most likely would not have been successful,” said Stuart. “She was the difference maker.”

And if Stuart harbors any regrets about the case, it was the lost opportunity to prsonally thank the late legal pioneer.

“I only wish that I had written her a letter or made a call, but I figured she was too busy to be bothered,” Stuart said. “I wish I still had that chance.”




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