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ROBERTA KAPLAN THE PRO BONO HERO


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ometime in 2009, Kaplan, a partner at the New York law fi rm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, got a call from, as she puts it, “a friend who was a friend of a friend” of a distressed elderly woman who had just been stuck with a large tax bill from the


Internal Revenue Service. She’d received an inheritance from her late partner of 44 years. But since the federal government defi ned marriage as between a man and a woman, the IRS could not recognize Edie Windsor’s relationship with her partner. If the government had recognized the marriage she wouldn’t have had to pay anything. She needed a lawyer and Kaplan agreed to meet with her. “It took me seconds to decide and I said I would be


absolutely happy to do it,” Kaplan recalled. "How much would she charge?" Windsor asked. Kaplan responded by putting her thumb and her


index fi nger together to form a zero. “Not a penny,” she said. She began the path to a legal decision that some have


described as the biggest since Brown v. Board of Education. “It was clear to me that she was the perfect plaintiff


because of her age, her experience, and her marriage to T ea for 44 years,” says Kaplan, 47, a lesbian and mother of one who wed her partner in 2005. T ey were married in Canada in 2007 but the union was not recognized under American law. For Kaplan, it was just the continuation in her fi ght


for marriage equality. A few years earlier, in the wake of the 2003 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, she’d been approached by


the ACLU to work on a marriage equality case in New York. Kaplan worked on the New York case. “She’s an excellent lawyer and she had clerked for


the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals,” says James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project. “She knew a bunch of judges on the court. She’s a lesbian, and we knew she would make it personal.” Kaplan and the ACLU worked on the New York case


from 2004 to 2006. T ey did not prevail in that case. But after agreeing to take on Windsor’s case Kaplan decided to build a legal team that included Esseks and the ACLU. Even months after they succeeded in persuading the


court to overturn DOMA, Kaplan still marvels at what the team accomplished. “Sometimes I still wake up in the morning and have


to pinch myself,” says Kaplan. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to wrap my hand around what we accomplished. I fi led for my fi rst tax refund a few weeks ago. I’m hon- estly not sure I still fully grasp it. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people around the world saying how this has helped them.” She continues: “I don’t think I or a lot of gay people


I know fully appreciated the extent to which the impri- matur of the federal government on discrimination had on us. It feels like one hundred pounds has been taken off my shoulders.” Since the court’s decision, she says, she’s been spend-


ing a lot of time traveling the country and giving talks about her work in the marriage equality fi ght. “I’m hoping to spend less time on airplanes,” she says.


MARCH/APRIL 2014 DIVERSITY & THE BAR® 39


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