by Susan Josephs
Long before Roberta Kaplan won a landmark Supreme Court Case, she understood that as a lawyer, “you have to win people’s hearts." So when she decided to represent Edie Windsor, she “knew that her case wasn’t about abstract principles that you hear pundits debate about. It was about the life that Edie lived,” she explains.
An already highly successful litigator with the New York City-based firm Paul, Weiss, Kaplan, she became a national hero of the gay rights movement after winning the landmark 2013 case United States v. Windsor in which she represented Edie Windsor pro bono. By focusing on Edith Windsor’s personal history as a lesbian and devoted spouse, she persuaded the Supreme Court that a key portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional and that her client deserved the same marital benefits accorded to heterosexual married couples. Her case helped lay the groundwork for the Court’s landmark ruling on June 26 that states cannot ban same-sex marriage. In October, Kaplan’s book, Then Comes Marriage, about her strategy for defeating DOMA, will be published.
“I have experienced just about every emotion during the course of my career... except boredom.”
“My sense was that I needed to tell this story so that future generations would know how we won,” says the 49-year-old attorney and Columbia University law professor.
Named one of the “100 Most Influential Lawyers” by the National Law Journal, Kaplan also juggles a full load of high profile corporate clients, which has included JPMorgan Chase, the Minnesota Vikings and Airbnb. Crediting her success to “a near crazy devotion to my clients and an ability to translate complex legal issues into simple understandable concepts,” she remains passionate about every aspect of her job, from writing briefs to arguing in front of judges. “I have probably experienced just about every emotion during the course of my career, except one – I have never experienced boredom,” she observes.
Raised in Cleveland, Kaplan grew up in an actively Jewish household and found a role model in her maternal grandmother, who “had an incredible intellectual curiosity and sense of justice. She had a strong sense of Jewish values that she instilled in me,” she says.
A voracious reader and ardent conversationalist, Kaplan studied Russian history and literature at Harvard University and discovered a passion for political activism when she became active in the movement to free Soviet Jewry. She volunteered with new immigrants in Boston and spent a semester abroad in Moscow, where “I hung out with refuseniks and developed the philosophical sense that religion (in my case, Judaism) can serve as a bulwark against totalitarian governments,” she says.
After graduating from Harvard, Kaplan received her law degree from Columbia University and clerked for two judges. She made partner in the litigation department at Paul, Weiss in 1998, earlier than expected. Though she rose swiftly to the top of her profession, she struggled to come out “in the workplace” as a lesbian. “It was a different time and there was always this sense of, ‘am I going to say something or not?’” she recalls.
Married to Rachel Lavine and the mother of nine-year-old Jacob, Kaplan devotes her spare time to serving as the co-chair of the board of directors of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and on the board of the organization Eye to Eye, which helps kids with ADHD and dyslexia. She still continues to feel “a sense of elation” over the Windsor case. Shortly after winning Edie’s case at the Supreme Court, “my family watched My Fair Lady, and afterwards my son (who was then seven) asked me if the movie was ‘old-fashioned’ because it was made before men could marry men,” she says. “That feeling makes me want to continue working for causes that I believe in.”