NEW YORK - Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a lifelong trailblazer, most famously as a woman but also as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. She played a role in legalizing gay marriage in 2015, though her work toward equality also included personal, private moments.
As the first Supreme Court member to perform same sex marriage ceremonies, Justice Ginsburg helped many men and women break barriers — and form their families.
She began officiating gay marriages just a few months after she joined a landmark Supreme Court decision that made the federal government recognize gay marriages in June 2013.
One of the first weddings she officiated was for Ralph Pellecchio and Dr. James Carter Wernz. The Manhattan couple was together for more than 30 years before tying the knot on October 26, 2013. They say they were the first gay couple to get married at the Supreme Court.
“I grew up in a very small town in Eastern Washington State with 365 people, very closeted when I was younger, of course. And to realize, there I was with my family in the Chambers of the United States Supreme court in front of Justice Ginsburg, it was overwhelming,” Wernz said. “It was one of the most significant points of my life.”
It was a wedding that the couple thought would never be allowed to happen.
Pellecchio first met Ginsburg in 1975 when he was a student in one of her classes at Columbia Law School.
“She was brilliant, inspirational in terms of her teaching of the law and also the most wonderfully warm human being,” he said. “It was one of the best experiences I had in law school.”
They kept in touch every few years over the decades, and when she was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, he sent her a congratulatory letter.
“She must have received many, many letters, and she got back to me with a personal thank you,” he said.
Pellecchio says that her impact on his life and career in law was so great that he wanted her to be a part of making his marriage official in the eyes of the law.
He sent her a letter asking if she could marry them the next time she visited the city. Pellecchio said that his family, and even his partner, didn’t think this dream would actually come true.
But a few days later she responded, ready to help pick a date.
“Ralph looked at me and said ‘what do you think about a destination wedding? Justice Ginsburg has agreed to marry us.’ And I was totally floored,” said Wernz.
She also offered to help the couple write their wedding vows, something that reminded Pellecchio of his days in school when she would give feedback on his papers.
“I’d send her a draft on it and then she’d send it back,” he said. “It was very meaningful for me.”
The last time Pellecchio and Justice Ginsburg spoke was in 2018, after he watched the RBG documentary. He said that the pictures of her from the 70s, when he first met her, reminded him of all she had taught him and the profound impact she had on the LGBTQ community, young lawyers, and the whole nation.
He says that over the next few days he’s prepared to see many tributes to her work as a lawyer, professor and justice of the Supreme Court, but that he wants people to know that behind the tough woman, she was a wonderful, caring and warm individual.