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NEWS & IDEAS

Robbie Kaplan on dignity and the importance of the United States Constitution

“At its core, what Windsor stands for is the incredibly simple, yet incredibly powerful proposition that every single one of us has equal dignity and that that dignity must be respected under the law.”

Robbie Kaplan is a powerhouse corporate litigator and one of the most influential lawyers in the nation. Kaplan made history when she successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Edith Windsor in United States v. Windsor, a landmark case that may be one of the most significant civil rights decisions of our time. In Windsor, the nation’s highest court ruled that a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the US Constitution by barring legally married same-sex couples from enjoying the wide-ranging benefits of marriage conferred under federal law. The consequences of the Windsor decision have been both rapid and profound.

Tonight Kaplan joined us to celebrate Gloria Steinem’s birthday and to remind us that the US Constitution does indeed matter for us all. 

"It is all too easy, in today's world of Twitter, of Fox News and Politico, to become cynical, to assume that it’s all one big inside game, and that nothing ever gets decided on the merits, but for other, less-principled reasons. I'd like to offer the case of United States v. Edith Windsor as an antidote to that kind of cynicism.

What Windsor means is that the United States Constitution matters. The great Supreme Court Justice, feminist, and women’s rights advocate Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said that the Windsor decision reflects the ‘genius’ of our Constitution. And of course, as per usual, Justice Ginsburg is 100% right. And if you’ll forgive my local bias, I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the Windsor case was won by two Jewish lesbians from New York City.

In his opinion for the Court in Windsor, Justice Kennedy uses the word 'dignity' 11 times in 23 pages. According to the dictionary, the word ‘dignity’ means ‘the quality or status of being worthy of honor or respect.’ Sometimes, it’s the simplest and most obvious things that say the most. At its core, what Windsor stands for is the incredibly simple, yet incredibly powerful proposition that every single one of us has equal dignity and that that dignity must be respected under the law. So in one sense, the dramatic change that we have seen with respect to civil rights for gay people is extraordinary.

When I argued Windsor last March, for example, only nine states permitted gay couples to marry. Today, I'm thrilled to be able to say that 17 states (comprising 41% of the American population) do, and that Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania and (believe it or not) Oklahoma and Utah, all relying on Windsor, are likely to join that group very soon. My friend and colleague Pam Karlan likes to say that Windsor is the ‘gift that keeps on giving.’ No other group of previously 'second-class' citizens or, to use Justice Ginsberg’s phrase, ‘skim-milk citizens’ has experienced that kind of change that fast.

On the other hand, the near constant wave of change that we have seen in the wake of Windsor is really not that surprising when you really think about it. After all, the fact that all Americans, including, as President Obama said, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, are equal under the law, while totally obvious today, has actually been staring us in the face all along. ... Our goal should be to make women's equality as obvious and uncontroversial today as gay equality is."