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Longtime journalists Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price didn’t choose careers in reporting simply to churn out news stories. The two settled on the profession for the purest of motives: to engage and uplift readers, to provide them with news they couldn’t find in other publications, and to effect change.
So when the two, on a trip to Murdoch’s home state of Georgia, noticed the paltry supply of gay-themed books in the Perry, Ga., public library, Price wrote a column for the Detroit News alerting readers to the problem and encouraging them to remedy it. In the weeks that followed, dozens of gay-oriented books and newspapers poured into the small library, many of them in honor of Sam Nunn, the former Georgia senator who grew up in Perry and spent many of his years in office trying to keep gays out of the military before finally supporting the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“It put a big, bright spotlight on the problem, and then readers solved it,” says Price, chuckling. “[The library] was flooded with books. The librarian was terrific about it.”
Price and Murdoch have another book to add to the Perry Public Library’s shelves: On June 1, Basic Books released Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court, the 582-page book they co-wrote to chronicle the history of gay-related lawsuits and the people behind them.
This detailed history is the couple’s second book. Their first, And Say Hi to Joyce: America’s First Gay Column Comes Out, was published in 1995 and intersperses commentary by Murdoch among a collection of pieces from the first 18 months of Price’s weekly column for the Detroit News, the first in the country written from a gay point of view. (Price says that she has received thousands of letters since the column was introduced in 1992. Many readers finished their letters with a special greeting to Price’s partner”P.S. And say hi to Joyce”hence the book’s title.)
Murdoch and Price met in 1984, when they were both editors at the Washington Post. Murdoch helped Price improve her writing and editing. In exchange, Price used her Triumph TR6 to teach Murdoch how to drive a stick shift. They started dating in 1985 and now live together in Takoma Park, Md.
Shortly after their first book was published, the two started research for Courting Justicea work they thought was badly needed, because there were few comprehensive accounts of gay-rights struggles in the Supreme Court and because many of the people who had been involved in the cases were slowly dying off.
Reporting on the notoriously tight-lipped institution wasn’t easy. In fact, every justice refused the authors’ requests for interviews. So the two researched newspaper accounts of more than 50 cases, the justices’ old handwritten memos, and notes from closed-door meetings. They also interviewed more than 100 former court clerks, as well as widows and children of former justices. But many people chose not to speak with them.
“If we had been writing about the CIA, the most secret papers about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, anything, it would have been far easier to get documents and talk with people involved,” says Murdoch, now managing editor for politics at the National Journal.
The research for and writing of Courting Justice took four years. The finished product not only fills a gap in gay legal history but also provides rare details about the personalities behind one of the country’s most powerful institutions (such as which former justice, Murdoch and Price allege, was most likely gay himself) and insight about the court’s quirky traditions (such as which justice answers the door during private conferences).
“People don’t need to have any real interest in gay rights to find this book interesting,” says Murdoch. “What we’re able to do is find out how the court works, the behind-the-scenes scrimmaging….
“We’re telling a story that the Supreme Court justices themselves don’t know. Nobody knows this story.” Not even in Perry. Laura Lang