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Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, at his office in St. Louis. Photo by: KAREN ELSHOUT
Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, at his office in St. Louis. Photo by: KAREN ELSHOUT

‘Right place, right time’: Meet our Lawyer of the Year

In 2014, gay marriage went from an uncertain legal cause to a near reality in Missouri, executions that had been on hold for years proceeded at a record pace despite court challenges, and the streets of Ferguson exploded, exposing the fraught relationship of police to some of the communities they serve.

Those have been three of the biggest legal stories of the year, and at the center of all three stands one lawyer in particular: Anthony Rothert, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. It’s for that reason Missouri Lawyers Weekly names Rothert its 2015 Lawyer of the Year.

Missouri Lawyers Weekly will honor him at its annual Missouri Lawyers Awards luncheon, Jan. 30 in downtown St. Louis.

Since transforming into a truly statewide organization just last year, Rothert’s ACLU legal team has managed to mold some of the most pressing legal issues in the state — and they’re just getting started. “I’m kind of in the right place, right time for my job and what I want to do professionally,” Rothert said in an interview last week.

It’s hard to believe, then, that this time last year Rothert was glum about the prospects of legalizing gay marriage in Missouri.

The state Supreme Court had ruled in October that the same-sex partner of an officer killed in the line of duty could not collect survivor benefits because they weren’t married. While the ruling left the door open to more direct challenges on Missouri’s gay marriage ban, Rothert was “not entirely optimistic” about his chances, he said at the time.

But in the last few months, same-sex marriage has rolled through Missouri courts like a storm, in large part due to ACLU-backed litigation. A Jackson County circuit judge in October declared that the state must recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other states — and to Rothert’s astonishment, the attorney general’s office declined to appeal the ruling. (A group of lawmakers, however, is seeking to intervene to force a review.)

The following month, the federal court in Kansas City declared Missouri’s gay marriage ban to be unconstitutional, just days after a different judge, in a case brought by the city of St. Louis with which the ACLU was not involved, reached a similar conclusion. Those cases likely will see the inside of one Supreme Court or another in the near future.

Rothert credited the dramatic change in public opinion on gay rights in the last few years, a shift on which he capitalized by having same-sex couples testify about the hardships they face without the ability to marry.

“When we bring litigation, we’re trying not only to win — we are trying to win — but we’re also trying to have a conversation with the public and change people’s minds about what’s right and what the constitution requires,” Rothert said.

Not all civil rights litigation leads to such clear-cut victories. More than a year’s worth of court challenges so far have failed to lift the veil of secrecy from Missouri’s execution process. Still, what details are known are due in large part to the ACLU’s emphatic requests under the Sunshine Law. We now know, for instance, that state officials refused to return a batch of drugs to a manufacturer that had barred them for use in executions — a controversy that forced the state to delay a late 2013 execution and to switch to a new drug.

Throughout this year, Rothert has filed a series of suits in state and federal courts, which are scheduled to result in hearings over the next month. He remains hopeful that the ACLU’s combination of litigation and public records requests soon will come to a head.

“We’re building a historical record,” he said. “When capital punishment is eventually abolished and we look back, this will be part of the story about how the public came to think that it’s shady, that the entire business is unbecoming of a just state.”

While same-sex marriage and death-penalty transparency were strategic efforts, the turmoil in Ferguson was thrust upon Rothert, as it was upon the entire country. In the days after the initial protests, Rothert found himself in court defending the rights of protesters to assemble in the streets and for reporters and others to record the actions of police. Those suits, he said, were more frustrating than productive.

“Those seem like they are such obvious constitutional conclusions,” he said. “It’s sad that we had to go to court to get court orders to enforce them.”

Now the real work begins: Addressing the long-simmering discontent within many minority communities that led to the protests and rioting. As a lawyer, Rothert said some of that work will result in litigation. But true change won’t happen until residents, police, local officials and the public at large understand the scope of the problem in places like Ferguson. As with gay marriage, Rothert said any victory will require the people most affected by racial inequities to make their stories known, both in and out of the courtroom.

“It may end with a consent judgment of some sort,” Rothert said. “But the real work has to be done in the community through public education.”

Publisher’s note: MLA adds two SLUs

In addition to naming our Lawyer of the Year this week, we’re also adding two more Legal Champions to the list of Missouri Lawyers Award winners.

The additions are Saint Louis University law professors Susan McGraugh and Brendan Roediger. We should have included them last week, when we credited their colleague John J. Ammann for SLU Law’s response to events following the Michael Brown killing.

It has truly been a team effort, with Ammann focusing his efforts on abuse of municipal warrants, McGraugh’s advising and defending the rights of demonstrators and Roediger’s playing a key role assisting both.

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