IN JANUARY, I caught up with Bopp at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee, of which he is a member. (The RNC has been a major funder of Bopp's work—paying him at least $1.5 million in fees in cases involving GOP candidates—along with the National Rifle Association and conservative megadonors such as Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos.)
The RNC has been a major funder of Bopp's work, along with the National Rifle Association and conservative megadonors such as Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos.
The previous year, Bopp had made headlines at the same meeting for proposing that the RNC adopt a resolution—ridiculed as a "purity pledge"—requiring candidates it funded to adhere to at least eight of ten positions on hot-button issues, including abortion and immigration. (A watered-down version of the pledge passed.) This time, fresh from hip surgery, he was there to help orchestrate the ouster of chairman Michael Steele and his replacement by Wisconsin GOP leader Reince Priebus. The limp didn't seem to slow him down as he dashed from meeting to meeting to press his agenda.
Clad in a brown sweater and sitting awkwardly with a cane at his side, Bopp looked far more mortal than you might expect for "the man behind our secret elections," as Common Cause recently dubbed him (PDF). When I asked him about the allegation that he uses his small, nonprofit clients as cover for a big-business agenda, a frustrated look crossed his face. He'd happily represent corporate clients, he said, "if they'd hire me." The problem, he said, was that those clients want their lawyers in DC, not Indiana.
Not that Bopp is apologetic about staying close to home. Working out of Terre Haute has helped him keep his overhead low, allowing him take on the small nonprofit clients that made perfect test cases for his free-speech arguments. Besides, he notes, Terre Haute was a great place to raise his three daughters—the girls' basketball practice was just a few minutes away from his office, and he could hang on to the Indiana University season tickets he's held since 1976. (He himself hasn't played much since eighth grade, when he stood 6'1" and coaches realized he wasn't going to get any taller.)
Bopp didn't set out to change the nation's campaign-finance laws. He comes from a family of doctors and went to college intending to follow in their footsteps. Organic chemistry did him in, and he switched to history and political science—and eventually law school. Alienated by the antiwar and counterculture movements, he got involved with Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative group formed by William F. Buckley, and he worked on a student paper that later evolved into the conservative magazine The American Spectator. He never aspired to a career in journalism—it was just, he says, "another way to fight the left, and that's what I was into."
After law school, Bopp sought out conservative clients to represent. Stanton Evans, then the editor of the Indianapolis News and a longtime conservative leader, referred him to Indiana Right to Life, and Bopp eventually became general counsel to its umbrella group, National Right to Life.
In 1982, he got involved in one of the highest-profile right-to-life cases of the Reagan era. It involved a baby born in Bloomington with Down syndrome and a surgically correctable birth defect that made it impossible for him to eat.
In 1982, he got involved in one of the highest-profile right-to-life cases of the Reagan era. It involved a baby born in Bloomington with Down syndrome and a surgically correctable birth defect that made it impossible for him to eat. The parents' obstetrician said they had the option to withhold medical treatment, food, and water from the baby. Both the child's pediatrician and the hospital protested what was essentially a death sentence, but the parents ultimately chose to do it. The hospital and the government challenged their decision in state court twice and lost.
Bopp ended up in the middle of the case, representing a couple who already had a child with Down syndrome and had offered to adopt the baby. But before the Supreme Court could hear the case, the baby died. Retelling the story, Bopp tears up. "That was really a smack in the face. Hate to lose, but hate to lose something like that," he says bitterly. "I mean, Down syndrome. Jeez. It just blew my mind."
Hearing Bopp talk about disability law, which for 20 years made up the better part of his practice—he's also started a legal-aid organization for the disabled and founded a hospice in Terre Haute—it's easy to forget that his biggest cases have involved conservative causes. He clearly loves politics as a sport: He was an Indiana cochair of Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign and worked on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign. (It was his legal reasoning that led the Supreme Court to settle the 2000 election in favor of Bush: He represented three Florida voters who claimed that recounting ballots by hand violated their right to equal protection, a position the Supreme Court adopted to justify its intervention in the election.) But he also has a moral vision of what politics should be about. With generations of doctors in his family, he says, he learned early on to respect the sanctity of human life. It's that belief that drove him toward disability and end-of-life issues—and, ultimately, toward doing everything he can to ensure the election of politicians who share his views.
WITH THE BUTTONED-UP demeanor of the staunch Midwestern Catholic that he is, Bopp seems an unlikely candidate to have been the first lawyer to use the word "douchebag" in a Supreme Court brief. The word has a cameo in Doe v. Reed, a case Bopp argued in the high court last year. Gay-rights activists had filed public-records requests for the names of people who'd signed a petition to put an anti-gay marriage initiative on the ballot in Washington state. Some had promised to post the signers' names online. Bopp's client, a group called Protect Marriage, filed suit to keep the names private—disclosure, they said, could expose the signers to harassment. His brief quoted an email that read:
"The judge released the names today of the donors who supported Prop 8, and your name is on the list as having donated...to keep same-sex couples from marrying. Someday you will have to account for the fact that you refused to love they [sic] neighbor, but in the meantime I hope your hateful little life is full of oppression and injustice as this is the kind of life you wish for others. You're a queer-hating douchebag. Fuck you. Best, Julia."