Amy Richardson fights for same-sex rights in North Carolina
Published in 2016 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on January 22, 2016
Updated on March 11, 2016
Every once in a while, a cause comes along that a lawyer can’t ignore. For Amy Richardson, it was a case involving same-sex adoption rights.
“I have two young children: a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old,” says the criminal defense attorney at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis in Raleigh. “As a parent, I was really moved into action by the fact that these families just wanted to have equal parental rights for their kids.”
In 2012, six same-sex couples filed a single lawsuit in North Carolina seeking second-parent adoption rights. At the time, only one same-sex parent per couple was recognized as the legal guardian.
“There was an [after-hours] hospital visit for one of the families at that time, but only parents could go in to see the child,” she says. “Because one parent wasn’t legally recognized, they were in this weird situation where they love and care for this child on a daily basis, yet they can’t go see them. It’s heartbreaking.”
The adoption rights case was amended in 2013 to address Amendment One, North Carolina’s constitutional amendment that defined marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. The case was renamed Gerber v. Cooper; should the ban on same-sex marriage end, the adoption claims would be moot.
Richardson began working on Gerber in 2014 with the ACLU as pro bono local counsel. “I filed, reviewed and edited key filings and coordinated with other counsel on the case,” she says. “I also had the primary responsibility for preparing the plaintiffs’ motion for fees, including drafting the pleadings and consolidating the supporting documentation.”
Though her work with the ACLU may seem like a far cry from her day-to-day practice as a criminal defense attorney, Richardson has had plenty of experience fighting for individuals’ civil rights. With her firm, she represented Steven Hatfill, the man wrongfully accused of being behind the 2001 anthrax attacks. “He was never arrested or charged,” she says. “Instead, the FBI would basically follow him around and let everyone know that they were following him around. He sued the government for Privacy Act violations for leaking his name to the media.” The case ultimately settled and, at the time, it was the second-highest Privacy Act settlement in history, Richardson says.
In October 2014, while Richardson was still serving as North Carolina’s primary counsel for the plaintiffs in Gerber, a decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Virginia ruled that a law similar to Amendment One was unconstitutional. The dominos began to fall—North Carolina’s attorney general announced that the state could no longer enforce Amendment One, and U.S. District Court judges William Osteen and Max O. Cogburn Jr. ruled that North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
“In Raleigh, people got married that night,” says Richardson, who went to the Wake County Courthouse to watch the first marriage. “And for many of our plaintiffs, they were immediately able to begin adoption proceedings the very next day.”
Though Republican lawmakers appealed the court’s decision to the state’s 4th Circuit, as well as the Supreme Court, all appeals were thrown out in August 2015.
With Amendment One abolished, Richardson is shifting her civil rights work back to a cause she’s been fighting for since 2001. “In North Carolina, there’s a very specific statute under which you can seek a temporary restraining order, particularly for people who are in situations where they feel they need immediate help or protection, called 50B,” she says. Richardson is currently working with a non-profit that helps women get temporary restraining orders and converts them into permanent ones, if possible. “[The work] is really about being on the front lines.”