Uneven Path

Playing on Uneven Ground

By Whitney Heins

Originally published in Tennessee Law, Spring 2016

Nashville criminal defense attorney Pat Snyder (’98) was in a rural county courtroom in 2003. She, along with her client, about a dozen state attorneys, a number of case workers, and a judge were furiously trying to schedule the case. With all those parties involved, it wasn’t going the way Pat had hoped.

Pat was a single parent working two jobs ... Janis was a touring musician trotting all over the globe. Pat was an introvert and Janis never met a stranger.

As usual, Pat wasn’t playing on a level field. The state had a team of people and a bevy of resources to fight its case. She had herself and a client with little money.

Then, in front of everyone, the judge paused, looked up, and caught Pat’s eye.

“Congratulations,” he said.

The judge had read that Sunday’s New York Times, in which Pat was the subject of a trailblazing article. Her marriage to famous folk singer/songwriter Janis Ian was the first same-sex wedding to be featured in the newspaper’s wedding announcement pages. Because same-sex couples weren’t yet on equal footing with heterosexual couples in US courts, the two said their vows in Canada. It would be another twelve years before their marriage would be recognized in their home country and they would have the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

Pat and Janis met fourteen years earlier when friends in common matched them up. While the two had mutual friends, they didn’t seem to share much else. At the time, Pat (not yet a lawyer) was a single parent working two jobs to support herself and her daughter, Pier. Janis was a touring musician trotting all over the globe. Pat was an introvert and Janis never met a stranger. Janis loved to cook, while Pat’s idea of a home-cooked meal involved unwrapping something and popping it in the microwave.

It turned out the two had a lot in common, and their differences only made each other stronger.

Still, their lunch at a local Nashville restaurant lasted eight hours and turned into dinner. The next two weeks turned into an intense courtship. The pair spent every hour together, much of the time stretched out on the couch coming up with a list of relationship deal-breakers.

“We had been in a lot of relationships and knew what was important to us,” says Pat. It turned out the two had a lot in common, and their differences only made each other stronger. They learned from one another and encouraged each other to go after their dreams. One night after a long day at work, Pat was lamenting her frustration with her current position in the television news archives at Vanderbilt University. Janis listened carefully and gave her a simple response: “You should go to law school like you always wanted.”

“I can’t go to college. I have to put Pier through college,” Pat said.

“Pier graduated two years ago,” Janis reminded her.

And so, that was that.

Pat chose UT Law and enrolled at the age of forty-seven. Later, she would establish the LAMBDA Legal Society Scholarship for returning students like herself.

Janis toured more than usual to help pay for Pat’s education. Despite one-half of the couple being on the road and the other living away from home, the pair managed to see each other often. “We have a house in Nashville and an apartment in Knoxville,” Pat explains. “Janis would come up to Knoxville on the weekends, or I would go to Nashville.”

I hope I’m a voice for the voiceless because otherwise, why else be a lawyer?

When Pat entered the College of Law, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer but had no idea what kind. It was her criminal justice and ethics classes that sparked her interest in helping those on uneven ground get a leg up. “A federal public defender came to one of our classes and told us ‘no one should face the power of the state alone.’ That got me thinking.”

Indeed, Pat has come to learn just how powerful the state is in terms of resources. “As a sole practitioner with 99.9 percent of clients who are indigent, you can’t pay to get the same investigative work and the same quality of background work that the state has at its fingertips,” she says. “You can’t do it all by yourself.”

That’s why after graduation Pat opened her own criminal law firm where she can practice law the way she wants and for whom she wants, often taking pro bono cases. “I hope I’m a voice for the voiceless because otherwise, why else be a lawyer?” she says.

Although Pat and Janis had been together for a quarter-century, they had few rights as a couple in the United States. They lacked rights for hospital visitation, the ability to obtain family health
coverage, inheritance rights, parental
roles of each other’s children, and protection in case the relationship ends.
“When reaching our age, you start
 planning things like retirement, putting together a will. It makes a world of
 difference to know that your partner is 
going to be provided for if something
 happens to you,” says Pat. “That’s
 something heterosexual couples have taken for granted.”

Legally, we can finally be normal people.

Pat and Janis went to extraordinary lengths to try to make sure they were covered in each other’s wills. “But there was no way we could take care of each other if something happened to us,” Pat says. “Our marriage was never accepted in Tennessee.”

But on June 26, 2015, that changed when the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. Tears erupted from Pat’s and Janis’s eyes when they heard the news. They could now be sure the other would be taken care of if their time together was cut short. They now knew if the other was severely harmed, they could see each other in the hospital without the law standing in the way. Finally, nothing could keep them apart.

“It was such a relief,” Pat says. “Legally, we can finally be normal people.”