The Man Behind Hundreds of Cases, 22 Years of Litigation & a Civil Rights Revolution: Jon Davidson

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December 6, 2017
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Jon at the 2015 Lambda Legal West Coast Liberty Awards, celebrating his 20th anniversary with us
Jon at the 2015 Lambda Legal West Coast Liberty Awards, celebrating his 20th anniversary with us

“Jon W. Davidson’s work day began at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time on Wednesday, moments after President Trump made the unexpected announcement on Twitter that he would ban transgender people from serving in the military,” wrote Derek Hawkins in the Washington Post this past in July.

“Davidson, legal director of the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal, was still processing the president’s out-of-the-blue tweets when the worried emails started pouring into his inbox,” the piece continued. “Some came from troops fearing discharge, others from people just trying to wrap their heads around Trump’s decision.”

For Jon Davidson (or JD, as he is belovedly known around our office), this was not an unusual morning, even though this new attack on LGBT people came out of the blue on social media.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve witnessed JD up at ungodly hours to work, sifting through legal materials and strategizing with his colleagues about how to conquer a problem or action against our community, mastering every minute detail, we could shut down Lambda Legal, colonize Mars and turn it into the queer utopia of everyone’s dreams.

But after 22 years – 13 as our Legal Director – Jon Davidson is leaving Lambda Legal.

Where do I even begin?

For LGBTQ people and people living with HIV, the United States is a more just, fair and welcoming place than when JD suited up to join Lambda Legal back in 1995. Much of that is because of Jon Davidson.

Indeed, long before assuming the role of legal director, Jon was a prolific lawyer at Lambda Legal, championing the rights of the most vulnerable in our community.

For years Jon led our work to protect LGBT and gender-nonconforming youth in schools, establishing landmark precedents that still stand sentry-like and shielding our young people from harassment, violence and threats. This work helped allow students to go to school proud of who they are and able to focus on their education.

In one such case, Jon represented Derek Henkle, a student who came out as gay in his first year of high school. Fellow students harassed and threatened Derek – including by putting a rope around his neck in the parking lot – and threatening to drag him behind a truck. Derek was later beaten bloody.

Instead of protecting Derek, the school treated Derek as though he was the problem, simply because Derek openly acknowledged being gay. This landmark victory in Derek’s case, Henkle v. Gregory, established that students have a First Amendment right to be out at school without fear of retaliation.

Jon then successfully sued multiple school districts to ensure that high school students could form Gay Straight Alliances.

Jon Davidson & Camilla Taylor
Camilla Taylor & Jon Davidson

But his advocacy for LGBTQ young people did not stop there.

Along with former Lambda Legal attorney Evan Wolfson, JD also represented Eagle Scout James Dale all the way to the Supreme Court in a challenge to the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-gay membership policy.

And although the Supreme Court upheld the Boy Scouts’ decision to strip Dale from membership, Jon never stopped fighting. He successfully championed efforts by municipalities to end taxpayer subsidies for the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policies, ultimately winning hearts and minds to such a degree that the Boy Scouts of America in recent years voluntarily dropped the policy Jon had challenged.  

Indeed, both before and after becoming Legal Director, Jon has had a hand in the success of hundreds of cases.

And his commitment to justice has touched the lives of thousands — if not millions — of people.

Jon has led – with wisdom, with humility and with style – the largest LGBTQ legal team in the nation during the most thrilling and productive period in our movement’s history. A team of dozens which spends its days (and many nights and weekends) litigating for our rights in the courts; engaging in policy work before Congress, state legislatures, federal and state agencies and local government bodies; and educating the nation about who LGBTQ people and people living with HIV are, our common humanity and our equality before the law.

During Jon’s tenure, Lambda Legal secured nationwide marriage equality, along with massive advances in the rights of LGBTQ and HIV+ people at work, at school, in health care, in immigration and criminal justice and beyond.

Under his leadership, Lambda Legal hired the organization’s first openly transgender lawyer and launched its Transgender Rights Project. It expanded its consideration of intersectional and racial equity issues and dramatically increased the representation of people of color and trans and gender-nonconforming people on Lambda Legal’s staff.

When many other organizations stopped fighting on behalf of people living with HIV as the epidemic increasingly affected people of color and people with low-income, Jon helped ensure that Lambda Legal never did.

And while he led, Lambda Legal took important positions against the death penalty, trying juveniles as adults and the criminalization of sex work, and in support of affirmative action and voting rights.

I know that these are some of the things Jon is most proud of.

Jon at Yale Law School
Jon at Yale Law School

However, Jon’s impact on our community and on Lambda Legal itself extends deeper than the sum of his signature litigation achievements, and his institutional transformation of our workplace.

He inspired us every day through his courage and integrity. He encouraged us to litigate bravely, fiercely and always honorably. He fearlessly took calculated litigation risks, buoyed by his faith in the goodness of other people.

Thus, we filed a lawsuit challenging Iowa’s marriage ban at a time when few outsiders thought we had a chance of taking it down. We filed our first federal lawsuit against a marriage ban in Sevcik v. Sandoval at a time when many believed it was too soon to go to the federal courts. And the courts proved his faith well-placed.

Most importantly, Jon inspired us to be better lawyers and better human beings with his passion for the work, his complete commitment to our cases and to Lambda Legal and his kindness to his colleagues.

Think of a synonym for “good.” Any synonym. At some point, somewhere, writing about something, a reporter has probably used it to describe Jon. Not just because he’s given probably somewhere in the neighborhood of around 5,000 interviews to press on behalf of Lambda Legal over the past 22 years, but also because he just is.

Jon’s steady, thoughtful and visionary leadership has helped lead a civil rights revolution. He has had such an enormously positive impact not only on the legal and social landscape in this country, but also on so many of us. So many families. So many kids. So many LGBTQ people or people living with HIV just trying to go about our lives safely and without prejudice.

And so many lawyers. I am one of them.

I have many fond memories of JD, including the way he always showed up for us.

He was a stalwart supporter of his staff, even when we held an embarrassing talent show at a staff retreat. (It turns out that he’s an avid swing and salsa dancer. Who knew?)

Another memory I will cherish is the feeling of community in the Supreme Court bar line as we waited overnight in freezing cold weather to observe the oral argument in one of our cases. The cold stopped our phones from working, preventing us from taking photos.

Jon has (in my experience) always experienced distress at the thought of not fulfilling any commitment he has made, and he was deeply disturbed by the thought that we might not be able to follow through on his commitment to send pictures of the Supreme Court building back to our social media team.

About the big things and the small things, Jon’s hallmark has always been his support for all of us and our work.

Jon’s fan club certainly does not end with me.

Not just everyone at Lambda Legal – but truly every single person who is LGBTQ or living with HIV in this country – has been positively impacted by Jon Davidson.

And if you’re a nerd, as I am, you may be wondering just how many cases Jon worked on during his time at Lambda Legal. The answer is truly every single one.

Jon Davidson
Jon circa 1997

 

But if you’d like to know which he served as co-counsel on, check this out:

1996

  • Cammermeyer v. Perry, which found the government’s appeal of order reinstating lesbian colonel to National Guard to be moot and denied the government’s motion to vacate judgment that the former ban on military service by lesbians and gay men was unconstitutional.
  • Smith v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission, which held that a landlord with religious opposition to extra-marital sex does not have constitutional defense to laws prohibiting marital status discrimination in housing (co-counsel for amici).

1997

  • University of Alaska v. Tumeowhich concluded that the University’s denial of health insurance benefits for domestic partners of its employees illegally discriminated on the basis of marital status (co-counsel for amici).

1998

LA Pride
Jon with Lambda Legal staff at L.A. Pride, 1998

2000

Jon at L.A. Pride, 2002

2001

  • Henkle v. Gregory, which held it clearly established that students have a First Amendment right to be open about their sexual orientation and to discuss sexual orientation issues at public schools.

2002

  • Rene v. MGM Grand Hotel, which permitted a gay employee to pursue a same-sex sexual harassment claim under Title VII (lead counsel for amici).

2003

  • Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which held that, under the Massachusetts Constitution, same-sex couples may not be denied the freedom to marry (co-counsel for amici civil rights organizations).

2004

2005

2006

  • Evans v. City of Berkeley, which upheld a city ordinance prohibiting subsidies to organizations that discriminate based on sexual orientation or other specified grounds (lead counsel for amici).
  • Soto Vega v. Gonzales, which reversed a denial of asylum to a man persecuted in Mexico based on his sexual orientation.

2007

  • Grobeson v. City of Los Angeles, a case on behalf of an openly gay officer who was harassed and discriminated on the job, in violation of a settlement agreement with the LAPD.
  • Morse v. Frederick, which argued for a student's First Amendment right to freedom of expression (co-counsel for amici).

2008

2009

  • Strauss v. Horton, which challenged, under the California Constitution, the process by which Proposition 8 was adopted.
Jon with Lambda Legal staff members in L.A.

2010

  • Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which rejected a challenge to the Hastings Law School nondiscrimination policy governing registered student organizations (co-counsel for amici).
  • Doe v. Reed, which rejected a challenge to the disclosure of petitions to place measure on a Washington ballot to repeal the state domestic partnership law (co-counsel for amici).

2011

  • Diaz v. Brewer, which affirmed a preliminary injunction maintaining health care coverage for domestic partners of lesbian and gay state employees.

2012

  • Golinski v. U.S. Office of Pers. Mgt., which held that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
  • Massachusetts v. U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs., which held that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional (co-counsel for amici).
  • Perry v. Brown (which was vacated and remanded by Hollingsworth v. Perry in 2013), which held that California’s Proposition 8, which excluded same-sex couples from marriage, violated the U.S. Constitution (lead counsel for amici).
Jon with Beverly Sevcik & Mary Baranovich before 9th Circuit Nevada marriage argument

2013

  • In re Warm Sands, which asked the court to reverse several convictions from an anti-gay sting operation in the Warm Sands neighborhood of Palm Springs (co-counsel for amici).
  • United States v. Windsor, which held that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional (co-counsel for amici).

2014

  • Latta v. Otter, which held that Idaho’s and Nevada’s bans on marriage for same-sex couples were unconstitutional (co-counsel for plaintiffs in Sevcik v. Sandoval, which was consolidated for argument with Latta).
  • SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Labs, which held that individuals may not be excluded from juries based on their sexual orientation and that government discrimination based on sexual orientation must be afforded heightened judicial scrutiny (lead counsel for amici).

2015

  • Obergefell v. Hodges, which won marriage equality for same-sex couples nationwide.
  • Rosati v. Igbinoso, which reversed the dismissal of a transgender prisoner’s complaint alleging that denial of gender-confirming surgery constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment.

2016

  • Carcaño v. McCrory, which enjoined the University of North Carolina from enforcing the state’s infamous H.B. 2.

2017

Jon Davidson, Camilla Taylor and Jenny Pizer outside the Supreme Court for Prop 8 & DOMA arguments, 2013

Lambda Legal’s work is in good hands, thanks to our strong team of talented attorneys, who are movement leaders in their own right.

I am honored to step into Jon Davidson's very big shoes.