Name: Roberta Kaplan, 53
Who she is: Civil rights lawyer
What she’s contributed: Long recognized as a legal superstar, in 2013 Kaplan argued the case of Edie Windsor, who sought to have her marriage to a woman legally recognized. Kaplan convinced the Supreme Court to rule in Windsor’s favor, effectively legalizing marriage equality nationwide.
Why we’re proud: If you’re enjoying a June wedding, either your own or someone else’s, you have Kaplan to thank in part. She played a pivotal role in ushering marriage equality down the aisle by arguing Windsor’s case before the Supreme Court.
At issue was the tax bill that Windsor was hit with a $363,000 tax bill when her wife, Thea Spyer, died in 2009. The surviving spouse of a heterosexual married couple would be exempt from paying estate taxes but the federal government refused to recognize same-sex marriage.
Windsor sought an exemption from the IRS but couldn’t because the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) forbade it. So she decided to bring a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of DOMA. Kaplan said that the achievement she’s most proud of was deciding to take Windsor’s case (pro bono) “in a matter of seconds” after talking to Windsor in 2009.
Kaplan already had a reputation as one of the legal profession’s top corporate litigators. A graduate of Harvard, Kaplan earned her law degree at Columbia. After she graduated from Columbia, she came out to her mother, who promptly started banging her head against a wall. (They eventually reconciled.)
In her memoir, “Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA,” Kaplan recounts that the Windsor case resurfaced her own painful coming out process. Even after she met her partner, Rachel Levine, a Democratic party operative, Kaplan still struggled with understanding the value of her own relationship.
She balked at going through with a domestic partnership when faced with paperwork problems. “It’s not like we’re getting married,” Kaplan told Lavine. Kaplan and Lavine eventually did marry, in 2005.
When it came to arguing Windsor’s case before the Supreme Court, Kaplan proved why she has a reputation as a superstar litigator. After being a little nervous at the start, she soon was, in her own words, “in the zone.” Pouncing on a question from Chief Justice John Roberts about whether the Senators who voted for DOMA were acting out of moral disapproval, Roberts saw it as “the chance to win my bet with our team by quoting Justice [Anthony] Kennedy’s own words directly.”
“Times can blind,” Kaplan argued, quoting perhaps the most famous line from Kennedy’s majority opinion striking down sodomy laws. The quote wasn’t lost on the Court, and certainly not on Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in Windsor.
Kaplan went one further, though. Acting on an impulse, she used an argument that Windsor’s legal team had never considered: flipping the argument about moral disapproval altogether to put the weight of morality on the side of same-sex couples. “I think it comes from a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people,” she told the Court.
Kaplan’s stirring argument won the day, of course, paving the way for full marriage equality just two years later.
Since the Windsor decision, Kaplan has left her white-shoe law firm and started her own. Her firm’s success as a commercial litigator can be measured in part by the bonuses–among the highest in the industry–that it pays its lawyers.
However, Kaplan has not given up her advocacy. She’s a co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which seeks justice for women who have faced sexual harassment or misconduct. Kaplan has also taken on white supremacists, as the attorney behind a federal lawsuit that seeks to punish the organizers of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Kaplan has also done her part for pride. Last year, she represented two women whose application to hold a parade in Starkville, MS, had repeatedly been turned down. Perhaps it was the specter of going up against someone named Litigator of the Year by The American Lawyer, but the city changed its mind. About 3,000 people turned up to celebrate the day of the Pride parade, thanks to Kaplan.