CINCINNATI – Al Gerhardstein visited Jim Obergefell and his terminally ill husband, John Arthur, just four days after the men got married in Maryland.
He sat in their Cincinnati home, pulled out a death certificate and showed them the blank spaces for marital status and surviving spouse. Gerhardstein explained that, after Arthur died, the state of Ohio wouldn't recognize their marriage. Without legal action, those lines would remain blank.
"He knew right away that we had a problem, and it probably wasn't something we had thought about when we decided to marry," Obergefell said. "That's all it took for me and John to decide this is something we weren't willing to put up with."
Gerhardstein filed a federal lawsuit on the couple's behalf and won the first round. Arthur died three months later. The state of Ohio won a subsequent ruling, and the fight continues. On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case, which has been combined with several others. Depending on how the court rules, the decision could pave the way for same-sex marriages to be recognized nationwide.
For Obergefell and his late husband, the lawsuit marked their first experience as activists for the rights of same-sex couples.
But for Gerhardstein, it's the latest high-profile case in a nearly 40-year legal career of fighting for civil rights, no matter how politically charged or unpopular the cause.
"Simply being gay doesn't hurt anybody. And certainly being in love with another gay person or a lesbian doesn't hurt anybody," said Gerhardstein, 63, during an interview in his downtown Cincinnati office. "The sole purpose of many of the laws we challenge is to make them unequal. That is not a legitimate government purpose, and that's what we keep arguing."
Over the years, Gerhardstein has fought for the rights of Ohio prisoners, abortion providers and victims of excessive police force. He has also
Won a consent decree in 1981 that prohibits Hamilton County from allowing police informants to have sex with criminal suspects or give them drugs.
Won a $4 million settlement for inmates of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville who, he successfully argued, were victims of the 1993 prison riot there.
Fought against Cincinnati's Article XII, the charter provision that has since been repealed and had prohibited the city from adopting laws to protect the rights of gays and lesbians.
Helped change Cincinnati police policies and procedures after the 2001 riots here.
"Much of his work over the past three decades has made Cincinnati a livable, vital community where people want to come rather than a community that people want to flee," said the Rev. Sharon Dittmar, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, where Gerhardstein worships among supportive and like-minded people. "It's not just a ministry to his clients. It's a ministry to the city of Cincinnati."
That is, of course, not the way everyone sees it.
Death Threats, Hate Mail Come With the Job
Since Gerhardstein moved to Cincinnati in 1976 to become a civil rights lawyer here, he has received death threats and angry letters, some of which are posted on a bulletin board at his law offices. His church has been picketed. And the danger has been real enough that he has warned his wife and three children.
"I remember once when my dad was involved in the abortion case, he put up a picture, and said, 'If this person comes to the door, don't answer it,'" said Gerhardstein's daughter, Jessica Gingold. The picture was of a man who had bombed abortion clinics and was not a fan of Gerhardstein's, she said.
But lawyers who have battled Gerhardstein in the courtroom can't help but respect the way he represents his clients and handles himself as a lawyer, said Jim Condit, who practices law in Blue Ash with his son.
Condit and Gerhardstein spent months in trial in 1986 arguing against each other, with Condit representing pro-life activists and Gerhardstein representing abortion providers.
"We never agreed culturally on this issue and never will. But his abilities are just tremendous. His skill as a lawyer and advocate is just top notch," Condit said. "I kept saying, 'Al, you belong on our legal team.' And I certainly wish we had him. I still wish he was on our team."
Cincinnati Bar Association Executive Director John Norwine called Gerhardstein "dogged" and said he's widely respected in the local legal community.
"Al is one of these guys who took on the cases that nobody else would take – from civil rights to abortion issues and government and police misconduct," Norwine said. "The difference with Al and a lot of attorneys is that he never gives up on these things. He follows through on all of them, which makes him an excellent attorney."
Louisville, Ky., lawyer Larry Simon found that out when Gerhardstein helped him represent four young black men who were wrongfully arrested by Louisville police.
Gerhardstein was focused not only on righting the wrong for the four young men, but also on crafting a more permanent solution to fix problems within the police department, said Simon, whose firm is called The Simon Law Office.
"He's all for constructive change and making things better," Simon said. "You have people that are in it just for the money or just for the notoriety. And with Al, you can really see what kind of person he is. The guy's just a mensch. What can I say?"
From Chicken Farm to Law School
Gerhardstein had his first brush with injustice as a kid growing up on a chicken farm outside of Cleveland.
His dad had been a loyal employee of the same company for his whole life, first as a truck driver, then running the dock and eventually overseeing the farm.
But out of the blue, once his dad got older, the company fired him, with no pension and no support.
"I just thought loyalty was everything, and then I saw a corporation treating him like dirt," Gerhardstein said. "He was not prepared to retire, and he died very young as a result of the age discrimination that he experienced."
Gerhardstein's mother was a nurse with a college education, but college wasn't the norm in his extended family.
He attended Beloit College in Beloit, Wisc., and majored in government. As an undergrad, he visited a prison in Illinois where he met with inmates and helped them solve their problems. At Beloit, he also met and married Mimi Gingold in a colorful ceremony Jessica Gingold described from their wedding pictures. The groom wore a purple suit and a pink shirt, and the bride wore a green velvet dress.
Gerhardstein got a full scholarship to attend New York University Law School.
"During that time, when I was in law school in particular, we had the whole Nixon administration," Gerhardstein said. "While I thought I was interested in government, I decided I was most interested in suing government while witnessing him as president."
Because he didn't have any law school debt to worry about after he graduated, Gerhardstein searched for a part of the country where he thought he could be helpful as a civil rights lawyer.
He had a friend in Cincinnati, and "the city seemed to have a lot of civil rights problems," he said.
Gerhardstein got a job at the Legal Aid Society of Cincinnati and worked there for two years before going into private practice with Bob Laufman, who retired in 2004. Gerhardstein has been in private practice ever since.
Jennifer Branch is his partner in the firm, now called Gerhardstein & Branch Co. LPA, and they have two associates: Jacklyn Gonzales Martin and Adam Gerhardstein, Gerhardstein's son. Gerhardstein and Gingold gave their two sons his last name with Gingold as a middle name and gave their daughter Gingold's last name with Gerhardstein as a middle name to promote "gender equality in opposite sex marriages," Gerhardstein said.
"I never thought I would work here until he invited me," Adam Gerhardstein said. "This law firm was another sibling growing up that we never really understood, and it's been a real wonderful experience to get on the inside and understand."
'Loving Father … Rock Star Civil Rights Lawyer'
Somehow, despite Gerhardstein's demanding law practice and his wife's busy 30-year career as a teacher in Cincinnati Public Schools, the couple also managed to be loving, involved parents, Jessica Gingold said.
Gerhardstein even served as president of the Queen City Figure Skating Club for three years because Jessica Gingold was a figure skater, she said.
"He tucked me in most nights when I was really little," Gingold said. "He had this way of being a very present and loving father while also being a rock star civil rights lawyer. I feel like I'm constantly trying to understand how he did it."
She'll have more time to try to do that in May, when she and her dad go on their next father-daughter tandem bike ride to raise money for criminal justice reform organizations. Their first was a 1,200-mile father-daughter ride for civil rights in 2009 that raised money for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, a nonprofit Gerhardstein started in 1997 to focus on adult criminal justice problems.
After that, they did a ride from Cincinnati to Chicago and another ride to Wisconsin.
This year, they're calling their ride Pedaling Justice. The trip will be about 1,350 miles. They will ride from Cincinnati to Ferguson, Mo., where Gerhardstein will talk about police reform, and then on to New Orleans, where Gingold will be working this summer.
"It's kind of like he's riding me to work," Gingold said.
They will be raising money for the Ohio Justice and Policy Center and the Children's Law Center in Covington, Ky., where Gingold was a legal intern last summer. Along the way they will listen to podcasts and talk about life.
"My dad's very good at giving life advice so I figured out a lot of my life issues while on a bike with my dad," Gingold said.
Plenty of others turn to Gerhardstein, too, whether they're looking for legal advice or just a thoughtful opinion, said Dittmar, Gerhardstein's minister.
"People really trust Al. They know he will be honest with him. They know he is thinking about fairness for everyone," she said.
Dittmar recalled a time she and her family were visiting the Gerhardstein-Gingold house to watch a presidential debate. Her son was five or six at the time, by far the youngest person in the group.
A week later, a small copy of the constitution arrived in the mail for the boy, along with a note from Gerhardstein. Dittmar tried to explain to her son, who is now 13, how important it was because it came from someone who cares so deeply about the law. It made an impression on him, she said. And the gesture made an impression on Dittmar, too.
"It's so like Al to see the 5-year-old in the room, just like to see the person who is transgender who gets beat up by their cell mate or the gay couple who can't fully adopt their child," she said. "It's nice to know there's someone who sees not just the powerful, not just the rich."
Gerhardstein sees – and fights for – the little guy.
"Al really cares about human beings," Dittmar said. "He really is that person."
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.