Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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DOMA-Busting Lawyer Explains Why Mississippi Is Her Next Big Case

DOMA-Busting Lawyer Explains Why Mississippi Is Her Next Big Case

Roberta Kaplan is kind of a rock star — or at least whatever the rock star version of a lawyer is. And her latest megahit just dropped.

"The truth is that I kind of enjoy writing briefs," she tells The Advocate. "But of all the briefs I've written in my career, this one has been the most fun. It's like a '70s greatest hits rock album."

She's talking about a new federal lawsuit that she filed along with her legal team on behalf of two lesbian couples and the Campaign for Southern Equality. Previously, Kaplan guided the landmark United States v. Windsor case to the U.S. Supreme Court, earning a crucial victory before the highest court in the land in 2013.

Kaplan's big win in Windsor changed the face of marriage litigation. Spurred by the Supreme Court's decision, dozens of lower federal courts have ruled against marriage bans in the past year. As a result, Kaplan's brief in her new Mississippi case has been able to draw from numerous new rulings, each of which flows from her Windsor victory.

"I don't think I ever would have expected the pace at which things happened," she says. "If you would have told me right after Windsor there were going to be 40 decisions and 32 states [with marriage equality] ... I think I would have told you that you needed to be more realistic."

Despite the flurry of recent wins, Mississippi was still sorely in need of a strong lawsuit with a powerful lead attorney. Previously, the only suit in the state was a divorce case filed more than a year ago. A state judge ruled in December 2013 that the lesbian couple was not entitled to marriage recognition, and the case has barely moved since then. Kaplan's is the state's first federal marriage case, and she'll get her first hearing before a federal judge in Mississippi on Wednesday.

Her involvement in Mississippi has an element of happy accident. She was visiting Asheville, N.C., with her family and happened to make some friends there. After the Supreme Court declined to hear some marriage cases a month ago, letting appellate pro-equality rulings stand, the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality decided that it was time to file a federal case in Mississippi and reached out to her for help.

"I'm an old-fashioned lawyer in that clients have to come to me," she says. "I don't go out much looking for clients." She's only met her clients on the phone so far but will be traveling to the state in advance of a hearing set for Wednesday.

The clients are Rebecca Bickett and Andrea Sanders, along with Jocelyn Pritchett and Carla Webb. Both couples are parents, as is Kaplan, who says she understands all too well their desire to protect their families.

"What they want is what everyone wants, and I can tell you as a parent what anyone wants for their kid," she says. "They want their family to have the same imprimatur of dignity and respect."

As for herself, Kaplan is still taking in the changes that the Supreme Court validated last year. "I don't think I appreciated, in filing the case and litigating the case, how much the stigma of being treated as second class had affected me," she says. "I remember after Windsor, waking up in the morning feeling completely different."

That's a feeling that can now extend to a majority of LGBT Americans in over 30 states — but not Mississippi. At least not yet. But Kaplan's lawsuit could be the state's best hope of changing that.

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