William L. Taylor, 1931-2010

by on June 28, 2010  •  In Uncategorized

By Guest Blogger Nancy Polikoff 

Civil rights lawyer William L. (Bill) Taylor, died today at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.  He was 78, and had been hospitalized since he suffered a brain injury as a result of a fall last month.  Bill will be lauded in the days and weeks to come for his contributions to racial equality and education reform, efforts he wrote about in his 2004 memoir, The Passion of My Times.  I knew him also as the father of Lauren Taylor, one of my oldest friends.

The LGBT rights movement owes Bill an enormous debt, a debt of truly historic proportion, yet I fear it will go unnoticed in the standard accounts of his life.  So I write this to express my own gratitude, something I had the opportunity to do in person, and to encourage every gay man and lesbian in the country to acknowledge Bill’s role in our struggle for justice and equality.


In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court.  After a monumental effort on the part of advocates for civil rights and liberties, and women’s rights and reproductive freedom, the Senate voted 58-42 not to confirm Bork. Bill Taylor was the single person most responsible for the strategy that resulted in Bork’s defeat.


At the time, as the battle against Bork unfolded, I remember thinking that far too much effort was going into the attempt to bring about his defeat.  Yes, he was ready to reverse Roe v. Wade – and the Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that a state could not deny contraception to married couples; and he opposed pretty much every measure designed to redress the nation’s history of race discrimination.  But I figured Reagan would simply appoint another reactionary (after all, he gave us Scalia just the year before), so I thought the fight against Bork was unlikely to result in any real difference in Supreme Court rulings in the years to come.


That was probably the biggest miscalculation of my career.


Because the Supreme Court Justice we got was Anthony Kennedy.


And that is why the movement for LGBT rights owes so much to Bill Taylor; without Bork’s defeat, there would be no Justice Kennedy.


In 1996, Kennedy authored the majority opinion in Romer v. Evans, bringing gay people within the purview of the Equal Protection Clause for the first time. (He wanted to write a stronger opinion, but settled for the 6-3 vote on the opinion he wrote).  And he penned the majority in Lawrence v. Texas seven years later, striking down statutes criminalizing consensual same-sex sodomy.  Writing for five members of the Court (O’Connor wrote separately to invalidate the Texas law), Kennedy used language of liberty, freedom, respect, and dignity that made pretty much every gay lawyer I know cry upon first reading.  And doing everything possible to erase the damage caused by Bowers v. Hardwick, decided just two years before he took the bench, Kennedy’s opinion not only overruled Bowers but declared that it had been wrong when it was decided. (When a federal District Court judge later thanked Kennedy in person – on behalf of her gay son — for his ruling in Lawrence, Kennedy told her to tell her son that the Court was happy to give him his country back.)


And today, on the day of Bill’s death, Kennedy cast the deciding vote in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, siding with the right of Hastings Law School to deny official recognition to a student group that excluded from membership unrepentant gay men and lesbians.

Kennedy often makes hideous rulings – against abortion, affirmative action and more.  He was, after all the dust settled on Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s next choice.  But on gay rights under the constitution he has done more than most of us dreamed possible.  When the New England gay rights legal group GLAD decided last year to challenge as unconstitutional the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that requires the federal government to pretend that married same-sex couples are actually not married, you can be sure their lawyers counted Kennedy as a vote for our side on a case that they know will reach the Supreme Court.


Whenever Justice Kennedy rules the right way – and I know that Bork would have stood instead with Scalia – I thank Bill Taylor.  May his memory be a blessing.

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