As lawyers, law students, activists and shorts-clad summer tourists queued outside the Supreme Court early Monday morning, Jim Obergefell stood at the head of the line – nervous.
“I find I’m getting nervous for the first time,” Obergefell, 48, told PEOPLE as the line moved inside to a hallway by the Court cafeteria. “I’m surprised by it, but I guess it’s just the nervousness that comes with something you’ve been waiting for for years.”
It is, after all, his name that’s front and center in Obergefell v. Hodges, the historic case he and his late husband, John Arthur, first filed two years ago and the one that may well be the last word on whether gay marriage is a constitutional right that individual states cannot choose to deny.
And so, Obergefell is determined to be front and center inside the courtroom whenever the decision comes down. “I look at it as another commitment that I made to John,” Obergefell says. “We started this fight for each other and I’ve completed it for him and for our marriage.”
Arthur died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) just three months after the two men married in Maryland in July 2013. They filed suit to try to force their home state of Ohio, where gay marriage is not legal, to recognize their out-of-state union by putting Obergefell’s name on the eventual death certificate.
Though Obergefell, wearing a suit and tie in Washington, D.C.’s oppressive June humidity, was first in line – and empty-handed so that he could go straight for the front-row seats without stopping at a locker – his case was not one of the decisions released on Monday.
So, taking time off from his real-estate job back home, Obergefell will be back on Thursday. And again next Monday, and again and again every day the justices expect to issue decisions between now and when the court recesses June 30.
He’ll carry with him only what’s allowed inside the courtroom – a notebook and a pen, just as he had with him when the high court’s nine justices heard arguments in his case on April 28.
“Last time, I had two sheets of notebook paper and I just filled all four sides with very small, haphazard notes. I was trying to write down questions and responses – writing down what was said as opposed to impressions or my feelings, my thoughts,” he says.
And this time, whenever it may be?
Since courtroom decorum is pretty strict, Obergefell says he hopes to capture in his notebook now “internal jumping up and down, screaming and hollering and just being happy.”
And aside from being unprepared for feeling nervous, Obergefell says one other thing about his journey with this high-profile case was unexpected.
“I have to tell you, in almost two years since we filed the case, I’ve gotten two things in the mail that were not positive. Every other experience I’ve had has been overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “It is surprising and just makes me feel good because it’s an indication of, yes, our country has matured and people are on the side of equality.”
Obergefell knows a deciding majority of Supreme Court justices may not yet be there, but he’s only making plans for celebration.
“I won’t let myself consider the possibility they’ll go against us,” he says. “That’s just too scary and painful to think about.”