3:45 p.m. | Updated Speaker John A. Boehner has vowed to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, but the law firm the House hired to lead that effort has withdrawn amid pressure from gay rights groups.
The groups had fiercely criticized the law firm, King and Spalding, saying that its agreement to defend the law, which prohibits federal recognition of gay marriages, would hurt its ability to recruit and retain lawyers. The firm’s chairman said in a statement Monday morning that the firm would no longer defend the law’s constitutionality.
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“In reviewing this assignment further, I determined that the process used for vetting this engagement was inadequate,” Robert D. Hays Jr. said. “Ultimately I am responsible for any mistakes that occurred and apologize for the challenges this may have created.”
The firm’s decision prompted one partner to resign. The partner, Paul Clement, a former solicitor general under George Bush, had been scheduled to lead the firm’s defense of the law. He resigned in a letter on Monday, saying the firm had a duty to resist pressure and complete the job for which it was hired.
“I resign out of 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,” Mr. Clement wrote. “I recognized from the outset that this statute implicates very sensitive issues that prompt strong views on both sides. But having undertaken the representation, I believe there is no honorable course for me but to complete it.”
Mr. Clement wrote that his personal opinions about the marriage act were irrelevant — and he did not indicate what they are. But he said he intended to continue representing the House in its defense of the law as a partner at Bancroft PLLC, his new employer.
“In this instance, my loyalty to the client and respect for the profession must come first,” Mr. Clement wrote.
Mr. Boehner’s decision to hire outside counsel to defend the constitutionality of the marriage act came after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in February that the administration would no longer defend the act in court.
That decision was a victory for gay rights organizations, which had lobbied President Obama to make good on comments that he did not believe the marriage act should be in force. But Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections gave Mr. Boehner control of the House and the ability to intervene legally to defend the law.
In a statement, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner said the speaker intended to continue in his efforts to make sure that the law remained in force.
“The speaker is disappointed in the firm’s decision and its careless disregard for its responsibilities to the House in this constitutional matter,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner. “At the same time, Mr. Clement has demonstrated legal integrity, and we are grateful for his decision to continue representing the House. This move will ensure the constitutionality of this law is appropriately determined by the courts, rather than by the president unilaterally.”
Richard Socarides, the president of Equality Matters, a gay rights group, said Monday: “Mr. Clement’s statement misses the point entirely. While it is sometimes appropriate for lawyers to represent unpopular clients when a important principle is at issue, here the only principle he wishes to defend is discrimination and second-class citizenship for gay Americans.”
Democrats have criticized Mr. Boehner for seeking to use public funds to defend the law. A spokesman for Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, said in a statement Monday that she “vigorously opposes” using “any taxpayer resources to defend discrimination, at a time when Republicans in Congress are cutting critical initiatives like education and infrastructure.”