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A case of Personal Politics  


William Hohengarten ’84 led the effort to turn Supreme Court precedent on gay rights on its head — starting with what people do in the bedroom.

By Tony Mauro
Photography by Moshe B. Zusman


Twice the United States Supreme Court has made William Hohengarten ’84 cry.

The first time came in 1991 when, as a student at Yale Law School, he read the Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick decision. The 1986 ruling upheld the Georgia law that made sodomy a crime, using hostile language to dismiss the rights and dignity of gay people—including Hohengarten himself.

“I felt that all gay people had been personally attacked by the Supreme Court,” he recalls.

Fast forward to June 26, 2003, when Hohengarten sat in the Supreme Court chamber as a leader of the legal team that set out to overturn Bowers, in a case called Lawrence v. Texas. It was the final day of the Court’s term, and Lawrence was one of the few remaining undecided cases, so there was no doubt that it would be announced that morning. As Justice Anthony Kennedy began to read his decision, Hohengarten wept again—this time with joy. Bowers was dead and buried, and gays and lesbians had won new respect—at least in the eyes of the law.

Lawrence was very close to my heart,” says Hohengarten, 45. “The chance to work on that case was the chance of a lifetime.”

But now, with the distance of a few years, Hohengarten can say that Lawrence has not completely defined his life. It was a high point, for sure, but not the only one in a life rich with intellectual pursuits at Reed and beyond. Compact and athletic, Hohengarten also has outdoor passions ranging from marathon running to wilderness canoeing.

Professionally, it is a life that embraces lawyering for corporations as well as causes. After the Lawrence decision, Hohengarten briefly considered leaving his high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm, Jenner & Block, to work full-time on gay rights issues. But he decided that would be too narrow a focus. “Almost any legal issue is interesting to me,” he says. “I’m fascinated with the way things work, the way the economy works. A paying case with business significance raises interesting jurisprudential issues just as Lawrence did.”

Paul Smith, a colleague at Jenner, agrees. “I try to work with Bill whenever I can on the most complex matters,” says Smith, who argued the Lawrence case before the high court. “He is a very creative thinker and writer.”

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