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Meet Roberta Kaplan, the lesbian lawyer who won a verdict against Donald Trump

Roberta Kaplan and Donald Trump

Kaplan is most famous as the lawyer who brought down the Defense of Marriage Act.

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Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who represented E. Jean Carroll in her sexual abuse and defamation lawsuits against Donald Trump, is a lesbian who’s a longtime champion of LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, most notably as the attorney who brought down the main part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

A jury in federal court in New York City reached a verdict in May in Carroll’s sexual abuse suit, which stemmed from an incident in the mid-1990s. Carroll, a journalist, said that Trump raped her in the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan and that he defamed her by saying she was lying about it. The jury found that Carroll did not prove he raped her, but she did prove he sexually abused and defamed her. Jurors ordered Trump to pay her $5 million. Trump has denied the allegations and vowed to appeal. He could not be criminally prosecuted because the statute of limitations for such charges has passed, but Carroll could bring a civil suit.

In her defamation suit, which she filed because he claimed she was lying about the sexual abuse, a judge found him guilty in September. Then Friday, a jury tasked with determining the damages he owed her ordered him to pay more than $83 million — "$11 million for damage to Carroll's reputation, $7.3 million for emotional harm and other damages, and $65 million in punitive damages," NBC News reports.

The trial over the damages was marked by numerous outbursts from Trump and admonitions to his lawyers. He left the Manhattan courtroom abruptly during Kaplan's closing argument.

After the sexual abuse verdict last year, Carroll issued a statement saying, “I filed this lawsuit against Donald Trump to clear my name and to get my life back. Today, the world finally knows the truth. This victory is not just for me but for every woman who has suffered because she was not believed.”

Kaplan, also issued a statement at the time. “No one is above the law, not even a former President of the United States,” she said, adding, “For far too long, survivors of sexual assault faced a wall of doubt and intimidation. We hope and believe today’s verdict will be an important step in tearing that wall down.”

GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis released a statement praising Carroll and Kaplan after the May verdict: “E. Jean Carroll’s courage, and her legal team’s expertise led by LGBTQ icon Robbie Kaplan, must become a turning point in history for all survivors of sexual abuse and torment. Voters have already held Donald Trump accountable for his atrocious, discriminatory presidency and treatment of women and all marginalized communities. Jurors and the world at large got to see his disgusting rhetoric on full display, unapologetically bragging about rape and abuse. Media reporting on his ongoing, inexplicable political career must follow Kaplan’s lead and challenge the former president’s lies and abusive behavior. Voters and the media can follow the jury’s lead to continue holding Trump accountable for his revolting words and actions.”

Kaplan is most famous for representing Edie Windsor, a lesbian widow who challenged the Defense of Marriage Act. Windsor had married her longtime partner, Thea Spyer, in Canada in 2007, after same-sex marriage became legal there. But section 3 of DOMA prevented the U.S. government from recognizing their marriage, so when Spyer died in 2009, Windsor owed $363,000 in estate taxes, which she would not have owed if she had been married to a man.

Kaplan took Windsor’s case at a time when many major LGBTQ+ rights organizations were somewhat reluctant to fight for marriage rights. The case, Windsor v. U.S., went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that DOMA’s section 3 was unconstitutional. It “violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court’s majority.

The ruling did not establish marriage equality nationwide, but it meant that any federal law referring to “marriage” or a “spouse” had to apply to legally married same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex ones. So married same-sex couples could file joint federal tax returns and receive numerous other federal benefits and protections. It also, along with the overturning of California’s Proposition 8, resulted in unstoppable momentum for marriage equality, culminating in the high court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015, striking down all remaining bans on same-sex marriage.

Throughout the Windsor case, Kaplan made sure the spotlight was on her client. “I knew the focus should be on Edie; she would be the spokesperson for our case, and before long, she would become the spokesperson for our cause,” Kaplan wrote in Then Comes Marriage, a book about the case. When Windsor died in 2017, Kaplan said, “Representing Edie Windsor was and will always be the greatest honor of my life. She will go down in the history books as a true American hero. With Edie’s passing, I lost not only a treasured client, but a member of my family.”

Kaplan continued fighting for marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights in general, challenging homophobic laws around the nation. In 2014, when she was arguing a case against Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage, one court observer wrote, “Watching the brilliant Roberta Kaplan and the State's attorney argue this case is like watching Aretha Franklin versus a drunk, bumbling fraternity guy in a singing contest.”

Kaplan’s reputation was somewhat sullied by the revelation that she had advised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's staff on responding to sexual harassment accusations, and she resigned as cochair of the board of anti-harassment grouap Time’s Up in 2021. The New York attorney general found the accusations credible, and Cuomo stepped down as governor. When the news came out about Kaplan, she was already representing Carroll, who tweeted that Kaplan “is the best lawyer in America” anad would remain her counsel.

After 25 years with the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Kaplan and Julie Fink founded Kaplan Hecker & Fink in 2017. One of its first cases was against the leaders of the violent white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., that year, and Kaplan and her team won a $26 million verdict. Kaplan has also represented Donald Trump’s niece Mary Trump in legal action against her uncle and brought legal challenges to Florida’s “don’t say gay” law.

With marriage equality under threat after conservative Supreme Court justices expressed a desire to overturn Obergefell if they have the opportunity, Kaplan lobbied for writing equal marriage rights into federal law, therefore protecting the right from Supreme Court action. Along with many other LGBTQ+ activists and allies, she supported the Respect for Marriage Act, which Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law last year. The act did codify marriage equality and — finally — repealed DOMA, which remained on the books although unenforceable.

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Trudy Ring

Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.
Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.