Shake-up strikes House Republican legal team for gay marriage ban

April 25, 2011

After a week of questions and criticism, the legal team hired by Republicans in the House of Representatives to defend a law banning gay marriage suffered a shake-up of sorts on Monday when the law firm dropped the case and the lawyer who was going to lead the effort resigned from the firm.

Just a week ago Paul Clement, U.S. solicitor general during the Bush administration, and his firm King & Spalding signed up to work for  Republicans trying to overturn a court ruling that found the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as between a man and a woman unconstitutional.

After criticism mounted from gay rights advocates, King & Spalding Chairman Robert Hays said the firm was dropping the case because of “vetting” issues.

“In reviewing this assignment further, I determined that the process used for vetting this engagement was inadequate,” Hays said in a statement.  “Ultimately I am responsible for any mistakes that occurred and apologize for the challenges this may have created.”

Clement quickly fired off his resignation letter to the firm, saying that if vetting was the problem, they should fix that rather than nix the client.

“I resign out of the firmly-held belief that a representation should not be abandoned because the client’s legal position is extremely unpopular in certain quarters,” Clement said in the letter. “Defending unpopular positions is what lawyers do.”

Clement immediately joined Bancroft PLLC as partner, a firm that was founded by Viet Dinh, the former assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush and who was one of the main architects of the Patriot Act. He also agreed to continue representing the House Republicans.

“The (House) Speaker is disappointed in the firm’s decision and its careless disregard for its responsibilities to the House in this constitutional matter,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Republican Speaker John Boehner. “At the same time, Mr. Clement has demonstrated legal integrity, and we are grateful for his decision to continue representing the House.”

King & Spalding spokesman Les Zuke said the firm was sorry to see Clement go:  “He’s been a good partner, and we wish him the best.”

Republicans who control the House had hired outside counsel for the case after the Obama administration decided in February to drop its defense of the 15-year-old law. Republicans slammed the decision as a political move rather than one predicated on the law, while gay rights advocates hailed the move.

Last year a federal judge struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act banning gay marriages as unconstitutional, prompting the Obama administration to initially appeal the ruling, saying it defended the laws on the books.

Now the Justice Department says it agreed with the judge’s ruling and instead has been turning over its case files to the House Republicans and their lawyers as they pursue overturning the lower court ruling.

(Reuters correspondents James Vicini and Richard Cowan contributed to this post)

– Photo credit: Reuters/Mick Tsikas

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