Shaun McCutcheon. / Handout
WASHINGTON - Shaun McCutcheon is fast becoming a household name - at least in lofty legal and political circles. "A lot of people know me," the 46-year-old electrical engineer from Alabama says with obvious satisfaction.
McCutcheon's name sits atop a case headed to the Supreme Court early next month. Should he win - and most court watchers think he will - wealthy political donors will be able to give limited contributions to as many federal candidates and committees as they want.
His 15 minutes of fame already are changing his life. Lately, he's been hopscotching between what he calls "super high-class" events held by conservative groups.
"I never expected to be here," McCutcheon says. "The whole thing has been an adventure."
Brown. Gideon. Miranda. Roe. Law school textbooks are littered with the surnames of everyday people who won extraordinary lawsuits against schools, states, even Uncle Sam. Some vaulted into public advocacy. Others reverted to private obscurity. A few sold out, switched sides or were forced to set the record straight.
The Supreme Court term that ended in June produced several more Davids who toppled governmental Goliaths: people like Edie Windsor, the 84-year-old lesbian from New York, who forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages; Kris Perry and three other Proposition 8 plaintiffs, who forced California to allow them; and Abby Fisher, whose battle against the University of Texas' use of racial preferences in admissions was given at least a boost.
Even Fane Lozman's quixotic battle to free his floating home from being defined as a boat and destroyed by Florida city officials brought a brief brush with book deals and reality shows. No bites so far, but Chief Justice John Roberts recently called Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla. his favorite of the term. "We had a lot of fun with it," Roberts said.
"It's been an amazing experience," says Lozman, 52, who lost his home before ultimately winning his case and now gets instant replies to his inquiries from local government officials. "My ego gets stroked on a regular basis."
The repercussions from Supreme Court fame extend beyond the plaintiffs themselves - many of whom died too soon to realize their impact on American jurisprudence - to their children and extended families.
Oliver Brown's youngest daughter was an infant when his name was placed first on a federal class-action lawsuit challenging racially segregated schools in Topeka. As a result, she was born into an iconic legal legacy.
"Brown v. Board of Education has been all I've known," says Cheryl Brown Henderson, now 62.
The fame can be fleeting, as it was for petty burglar Clarence Earl Gideon, who rode his jailhouse letter demanding a lawyer to a new trial and freedom - but who died without recognizing the importance of his case. It can be fickle, as it was for convicted rapist Ernesto Miranda, whose tainted confession led to new rights for criminal suspects - but couldn't save him from another conviction and an ignominious death.
It can even become a life-long saga for plaintiffs who start out anonymously, such as Norma McCorvey - the "Jane Roe" of the Roe v. Wade abortion case. Upon winning abortion rights for women following her third pregnancy, McCorvey switched sides, wrote two books about the case and sought unsuccessfully to have her victory overturned.
Most plaintiffs find quiet satisfaction, however, in having fought the law and won. Their achievements, forever etched into history books and legal tomes, are celebrated on courthouse plaques such as the one in Bowling Green, Va., for Mildred and Richard Loving, who won the right to interracial marriage.
"They fought not for the love of civil rights," it reads, "but for the civil right to love."
THE BURDEN OF 'BROWN'
Oliver Brown just wanted his eldest daughter, Linda, to go to her neighborhood elementary school. And so he lent his name to the NAACP's lawsuit in Topeka. It would be a fateful decision - for the nation, and for Brown and his heirs.
His became the first name listed among 13 plaintiffs; perhaps it was because he was the only man. Whatever the reason, judicial shorthand forever has reduced the case to Brown v. Board of Education - for many years, to the chagrin of others involved in five class-action lawsuits from Kansas, Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., that were rolled into one.
For Cheryl Brown Henderson, her sisters and mother, it has meant a lifetime of setting the record straight - that Brown wasn't Oliver Brown's brainchild and the credit should be shared beyond Topeka, where race relations remained peaceful, to litigants who faced real danger.
"The dark side of sudden fame was resentment - people not understanding that some of these iconic myths that emerge happen to you, it's not something you put forth," Henderson says. "We didn't have people burning crosses in our yard. We didn't have people who lost their home, lost their job. All of these things happened in other cases."
Like many Supreme Court icons, Brown didn't get much time to bask in the glow of his achievement. After the high court's unanimous decision in 1954, he returned to his job as a welder for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, while helping out at the family restaurant and serving as a church minister. He died seven years later at age 42.
That left the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education to his wife, a homemaker who later became Leola Montgomery, and their daughters. "It wasn't something that we could take off, like a coat," Henderson says. "When your name is on a Supreme Court petition, you're it. Everything comes through you. You are the filter."
In 1988, the family established the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research as a tribute to the plaintiffs, organizers and attorneys behind the iconic name. It has developed programs, curricula, exhibits and oral histories on civil rights and diversity, as well as awarding scholarships to minority students pursuing careers in teacher education.
"We are so proud that the case does bear our surname," Henderson says. "We are proud to bear the responsibility, as long as we're alive â?¦ to be willing to bear witness."
CRIMINAL DEFENSE HEROES
A petty thief and a convicted rapist paved the way a half-century ago for criminal suspects to get lawyers and be advised of their rights. The thief got out of jail and got a job pumping gas. The rapist reverted to a life of crime.
First came Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter with a long arrest record who was convicted of stealing beer, soda and pocket change from a pool hall in Florida. His handwritten appeal to the Supreme Court led to a unanimous 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright that all criminal defendants have a right to counsel. At his second trial, Gideon was acquitted.
Even his lawyer, Fred Turner, once said that Gideon "would steal a hot stove with his bare hands," recalls Bruce Jacob, who represented the state of Florida in court. But after first declaring his desire for a cheeseburger, Gideon married for the fourth time and apparently settled down. He was pumping gas at a marina until his death in 1972 at age 61.
Gideon's story was turned into a book by famed legal writer Anthony Lewis and later a movie starring Henry Fonda, and it led to the creation of the nation's public defender system for the poor. But Gideon mostly knew that he was a hero to his fellow inmates, says former public defender Virgil Mayo, who can still recall drinking beer with him after the second trial.
"He had a reputation then to live up to," Mayo says. "When they reach a certain age, they've had enough of prison. Maybe Gideon reached that stage."
Ernesto Miranda never reached that stage. Having confessed to rape under questioning from Phoenix police officer Carroll Cooley, he won a new trial in 1966 when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Miranda v. Arizona that defendants must be informed of their rights of self-incrimination.
Miranda was 26 when he won the case, but he was convicted again and served out most of an 11-year prison term. He was paroled in the mid-1970s and was known for selling autographed Miranda cards for $2 apiece. "He thought he was some kind of celebrity," Cooley says.
But Miranda never stayed out of trouble, and he died in a barroom knife fight at age 34. Some of the cards bearing his name were found on his body.
"The only one who didn't benefit from the Miranda warning case was Miranda," says Gary Stuart, author of Miranda: The Story of America's Right to Remain Silent.
LEGAL CASE TO LOBBYING CAUSE
Jennifer Gratz's life was remade in 2003 when she won her case against the University of Michigan's use of racial preferences for admissions.
Her victory in Gratz v. Bollinger, overshadowed at the time by Barbara Grutter's loss against Michigan's law school, transformed Gratz into a full-time lobbyist against affirmative action policies that favor minority applicants over whites.
"I have a degree in math. Without my case I would probably be writing software or doing something technical," Gratz says. Instead, she returned to Michigan from California to start the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which resulted in a voter-approved 2006 referendum banning the use of affirmative action in education, employment and contracting.
But racial preferences have many lives, and the matter has been tied up in court ever since. The Supreme Court's ruling this June directing lower courts to more closely scrutinize the University of Texas's affirmative action policies and its decision to hear the Michigan case in October have kept the issue alive - and Gratz busier than ever as co-founder of XIV Foundation, named for the 14th Amendment. Now she's considering a run next year for the university's Board of Regents.
To a lesser extent than Gratz, the lives of this year's winning plaintiffs in two same-sex marriage cases have been altered by sudden fame.
Edie Windsor, at 84 the sudden darling of the gay and lesbian scene from Greenwich Village to Provincetown, Mass., has both basked in her glory and been forced to deal with her loss of privacy following her victory in U.S. v. Windsor.
"When she walks down the street, she literally gets surrounded by people," says her attorney, Roberta Kaplan, who successfully argued Windsor's case against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied federal benefits to legally married gay and lesbian couples.
"She obviously was the perfect symbol in so many ways of the injustice of DOMA," Kaplan says of Windsor, who was charged $363,000 in federal estate taxes when her spouse and partner of four decades, Thea Spyer, died. "But for someone who's 84 years old, I think the loss of privacy can be difficult."
Kris Perry has remained a bit more anonymous, despite being the lead name on Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case against California's Proposition 8 gay marriage ban. The Supreme Court in June let stand a lower court's decision that the ban was unconstitutional.
About the first thing Perry and longtime partner Sandy Stier did was get married. And they marched in San Francisco's Gay Pride parade a few days later. Afterward, at lunch, "Somebody picked up our tab," Stier recalls. "We have no idea who it was."
The two have given some speeches - at Google, New York University and the San Francisco Bar Association, among others. "It's just about as much as we can handle, with work," Perry says.
Now her work life may be leading toward increased advocacy. Perry recently moved from a state agency to a job in Washington, D.C., where she advocates for federal investments in early childhood education. With the last of their four children now in college, Stier is considering a future in women's rights.
"There's a world of possibilities," she says. "It is a heady thing."
'DRAGGED INTO HEROICS'
Richard and Mildred Loving never intended to be pioneers for civil rights, marriage rights or anything but their own right to live quietly together north of Richmond, Va.
That explains why, after forcing the state of Virginia in 1967 to recognize their interracial marriage, the couple reverted to the private life they had led until police invaded their bedroom.
Richard Loving, who was white, went back to bricklaying and tinkering with hot rods. He was only 41 when he was killed in a car accident in 1975. Mildred, who was of black and Native American descent, had to fight off publicity until her death five years ago at 68.
"They really hated publicity. They fought against it," says Philip Hirschkop, one of their attorneys in the Supreme Court case. "They were dragged into heroics kicking and screaming."
The story of Loving v. Virginia was made into two movies for Showtime and HBO. Still, Mildred Loving shunned the spotlight, right up until her death, when she was eulogized as a civil rights hero.
"They were very quiet, unassuming, unpretentious people," says Bernard Cohen, another of the Lovings' attorneys.
That pretty much describes John Lawrence, a hospital lab technician whose idea of excitement was to have a few drinks at a Houston bar.
Except that Brazos River Bottom was a country-western LGBT bar, and Lawrence was gay. When police went to his apartment on a tip in 1998, they claimed to have caught him having sex with Tyron Garner and charged him with violating the state's sodomy law.
The landmark 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas striking down the nation's remaining sodomy laws didn't cause Lawrence to change his life. He attended some speaking events with his lawyer and some award ceremonies in the LGBT community, and he cooperated on a book about the case, claiming the two men were not having sex that fateful night.
"They were famous in the gay community, and people wanted to meet them," recalls Mitchell Katine, the lawyer, of Lawrence and Garner. "But his regular routine of working and going out once or twice to drink didn't really change."
So far at least, that's how Abby Fisher has handled her legal fame following the court's ruling in June on Fisher v. University of Texas, her lawsuit against the school that didn't admit her in 2008. She attended Louisiana State University instead.
Fisher's challenge to the university's affirmative action policy isn't over. The justices sent it back to Texas, urging lower courts to review more strictly the system of racial preferences that is used, in various ways, by other colleges as well. In the meantime, Fisher is keeping her head down and her spirits up.
"My face was on the front of the LSU (Louisiana State University) paper during my senior year. It was a small picture, and I kept my head down all day so no one would recognize me," she recalls. "Thankfully, my privacy wasn't affected at all. No one is banging down my door or bothering me at work."
Perhaps the strangest thing for Fisher is to be suing the university she still supports - at least its football team. While shopping a few days after her case was heard last October, she says, a salesman recognized her name and asked, "How'd your case go?"
"I felt a little weird," Fisher says, "talking to a stranger about suing UT while wearing a UT shirt."
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Read the original story: Everyday heroes etched in Supreme Court history