Former Shaker Heights resident Roberta Kaplan is the lawyer who toppled the Defense of Marriage Act before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her victory in the nation's highest court June 26 has made her a hero to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
Kaplan, who lives in New York City, was lead counsel for Edith Windsor in Windsor v. the United States of America. The Supreme Court announced a 5-4 decision in the case, declaring unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for federal purposes as only between a man and a woman.
Kaplan married Rachel Lavine in 2005 in Toronto and has a 7-year-old son.
Although Kaplan identifies herself as a lesbian and said she is part of a class that benefits from the victory, she remained focused on the specific case – Windsor's lawsuit.
"The case was never about me," she said July 1. "It was always about our client, Edith Windsor, and from day one, we really believed that she had an incredibly strong story to tell and that the story of her life would help persuade th=e Supreme Court to rule the way they did."
Windsor was ordered to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes following the 2009 death of her spouse, Thea Spyer; the $363,000 was an inheritance tax Windsor would not have had to pay had she married a man. After several gay rights groups passed on her case, a mutual friend connected Windsor to Kaplan, who said she was confident she could win no matter the jurisdictional level.
Kaplan works in the litigation department of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a Manhattan firm. She has dreamed of living in New York since she was 10 years old.
"I remember reading through my mom's subscriptions to The New Yorker and New York magazine, when I decided I would move there someday," Kaplan said in a telephone interview.
Kaplan said she knew after graduating from law school at Columbia University that she wanted to be a litigator and was interested in Paul, Weiss because it was known to be the first to break down the barrier of Jews practicing with gentiles.
The evening of June 28, Kaplan found herself standing – with Windsor – before Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a LGBTQ-recognized synagogue in Manhattan, speaking about the fundamental change she believed led to her victory in the DOMA-related case.
In regard to Judaism, Kaplan said she has seen great changes in respect to the LGBTQ community, especially at the Jewish Theological Seminary, an academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism.
"For the first time ever, the JTS filed an amicus brief in a court case," she said, referring to Windsor v. the United States. "Less than 10 years ago, anyone ordained in the JTS who was gay would have had to be in the closet."
Now a member of multiple synagogues, Kaplan finds herself closest to The Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Sag Harbor, N.Y., because of Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, who held a religious wedding ceremony for them at Rachel's parents' home in Rhode Island in 2005.
"Our community is so proud of Robbie," Uhrbach said. "Some people accomplish a lot by compromising their ideals, thoughts and ethics. She did it remaining 100 percent true to who she is and holding ethical commitments to a higher standard."
Their synagogue plans on having a kiddush in Kaplan's honor this weekend to celebrate. "This is really a family celebration for the community to just rejoice."
Kaplan's parents said they have remained supportive and are impressed by their daughter's accomplishments.
"Growing up, Robbie always had a real strong character that couldn't be shaken." said her father, Richard Kaplan.
Richard and his wife, Bess, live in Pepper Pike and are members of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike. Though they grew up Reform, the Kaplans found themselves joining Park because of Rabbi Joshua Skoff, Richard said. He added Robbie has become highly dedicated to Judaism and they plan to visit her for Rosh Hashanah at the Hampton synagogue.
Kaplan celebrated her bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu El, which moved to Orange from University Heights. She is a graduate of Hawken School in Chester Township.
Kaplan said she believes that the court's ruling will not only have a big impact on marriage, it signals the end of laws that treat gay people differently.
"The Supreme Court spoke very clearly that any statute that discriminates against people solely because they are gay offends the Constitution, and that was a very strong and clear statement from the court," she said.
"It's history being made," said Rabbi David Horowitz, national president of Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays and rabbi emeritus of the Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Akron. There are more than 360 PFLAG chapters across the country. Horowitz, who said he was the first to do same-sex marriage in the local Jewish community, has been involved in the LGBTQ scene since 1990.
Now that the four-year case is over, Kaplan knows how she wants to celebrate.
"I plan on spending a lot of time watching movies, eating chocolate ice cream and spending time on the beach with my family," she said.