- (Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
A lawyer at a prominent law firm in Washington, D.C., has reportedly left his reputable job to help Utah defend its same-sex marriage ban, citing his strong Mormon faith as the motivation behind his decision.
Gene Schaerr, formerly a partner at the Winston & Strawn legal firm, reportedly sent a firm-wide email to coworkers on Jan. 17 announcing his plans to lead the state in defending its ban on same-sex marriage, which was struck down by a federal judge in December. Schaerr cited his dedication to his faith and family as the reason for his departure.
"I have accepted that position so that I can fulfill what I have come to see as a religious and family duty: defending the constitutionality of traditional marriage in the state where my church is headquartered and where most of my family resides," Schaerr, a Mormon, said in the email, which was reportedly leaked to the Above the Law blog.
Schaerr reportedly concluded his email by blessing his colleagues, saying he had faith in his choice, and referencing the Bible by writing "all things work together for good to them that love God."
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced earlier in January that Schaerr will be leading the defense team in arguing for the constitutionality of the state's Amendment 3 ban on same-sex marriage, which was approved by 66 percent of voters in 2004. Schaerr's official title at his temporary role will be Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Utah.
In a statement issued last week, Reyes was quick to clarify that Schaerr, a Utah native and graduate of Brigham Young University, was not hired by the state for religious reasons, but rather because of his knowledge of and experience with constitutional and appellate law. "Mr. Schaerr was hired because he was the most qualified applicant, and gives us the best chance to win," Reyes said in a statement.
"Any intimation that he was hired for reasons other than his qualifications, his understanding of the Constitution and his mastery of the legal issues in this case are offensive and detract from the civility this case merits."
According to KSL.com, Schaerr completed his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University and then earned a law degree from Yale. He reportedly has an 80 percent win rate in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the state is appealing a judge's previous ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Additionally, Schaerr has reportedly won 75 percent of the federal appeals he has represented.
Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz told BuzzFeed that Schaerr's decision to defend the state's ban on same-sex marriage for religious reasons was "wrong," adding that "when you become an attorney, you take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, not any particular religious doctrine."
The Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank based in Utah, was reportedly heavily involved in the hiring of Schaerr and has offered to pay legal fees. The think tank's executive director, Paul Mero, said in a statement his group would foot the bill for the "right counsel and the right strategy, adding that Schaerr is "our guy."
"He meets the criteria that Sutherland Institute has been insisting on. I think he has the capability to provide a deep, rich, meaningful case before the 10th Circuit, and a winning case," Mero said.
Schaerr's decision to leave his firm is similar to the previous decision of lawyer Paul Clement, who in 2011 resigned from the firm King & Spalding after it dropped out of representing the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in defending the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Clement said at the time that he resigned from the major law firm due to the "firmly held belief that a representation should not be abandoned because the client's legal position is extremely unpopular in certain quarters. Defending unpopular clients is what lawyers do." Clement went on to defend the statute with a smaller law firm.
The state is currently appealing federal Judge Robert J. Shelby's Dec. 20 ruling overturning the state's ban on same-sex marriage. Following Shelby's ruling, over one thousand same-sex couples received marriage licenses in the state before the Supreme Court granted Utah a stay while Utah appeals the ruling. The state has frozen any recognition of the same-sex marriages until its case plays out in court, but the Department of Justice has agreed to recognize the marriages on a federal level.
Schaerr is one of three outside attorneys hired by Utah's attorney general's office to assist in the state challenge against Shelby's ruling, which will take place in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver beginning Feb. 3, when the state will file its brief.