Last edited: February 14, 2005

Supreme Court Rejects Appeal From Lesbian Lawyer in Georgia

New York Times, January 13, 1998
229 W. 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
Fax 212-556-3622

By Linda Greenhouse

WASHINGTON -- A woman who lost a promised job as a lawyer in the Georgia attorney general's office, after the state attorney general learned that she was planning a marriage ceremony with her lesbian partner, failed Monday to persuade the Supreme Court to hear her appeal.

The case had been closely watched for several years as a potential vehicle for a new Supreme Court decision on gay rights. The same Georgia attorney general, Michael Bowers, a Republican who recently resigned to run for governor, was also a party in the court's 1986 decision, Bowers vs. Hardwick, which rejected a constitutional right to privacy for sex between consenting adults of the same sex.

Bowers withdrew his job offer to Robin Shahar, a top-ranked graduate of Emory University law school, on the ground that "inaction on my part would constitute tacit approval of this purported marriage and jeopardize the proper functioning of this office." Ms. Shahar was to have started her job in the fall of 1991, shortly after she and her partner celebrated their commitment to one another in a Jewish ceremony performed by a rabbi.

Ms. Shahar, who had worked as a summer law clerk in the attorney general's office, brought a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. She contended that the withdrawal of the job offer violated her constitutional rights to equal protection and to "intimate and expressive association" as protected by the First Amendment.

She lost in district court, then won a temporary victory from a three-judge appellate panel. That ruling was then overturned last June by an 8-4 vote of the full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The majority there said the attorney general's concerns about "perceived public hostility" toward same-sex marriages were reasonable and formed a sufficient basis for his actions. Even assuming that the case involved personal rights that were entitled to "substantial weight" in the context of public employment, the appeals courts said, these individual rights were outweighed by the department's own interest in its efficient operation.

In her Supreme Court appeal, Shahar vs. Bowers, No. 97-751, brought jointly by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, Ms. Shahar said the court should "make clear that belonging to an unpopular group, defined by 'controversial' or 'discomforting' personal characteristics, cannot trigger greater, selective limitations on public employees' First Amendment activities."

Last August, after Bowers publicly acknowledged having had an adulterous relationship with a woman employed in his department, Ms. Shahar sought to reopen the case to show that his office's asserted standards of sexual propriety were not being applied evenhandedly. The 11th Circuit denied Ms. Shahar's petition for a re-hearing.

Ms. Shahar has worked for the last few years as a lawyer for the city of Atlanta and has received several promotions, her lawyer, Ruth E. Harlow, said Monday.

[Home] [News] [Georgia]