Shahar v. Bowers
Case arguing against the discriminatory firing of a lesbian attorney
After graduating at the top of her class from Emory Law, Robin Shahar was offered a position in the Georgia Attorney General’s Office. Before she began the job, state Attorney General Michael Bowers learned of her plans to hold a commitment ceremony with her same-sex partner and rescinded the job offer. Bowers claimed that Shahar’s sexual orientation would prevent her from enforcing the state’s sodomy law, and a Georgia district court upheld his decision. Appealing the decision, Shahar cited violations of her First Amendment rights to free association and Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal treatment. Subsequently, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of Shahar; the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided for Bowers, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case, making the 11th Circuit decision final. Lambda Legal managing attorney Ruth Harlow, then an attorney with the ACLU, led the legal team. Additionally, Lambda Legal submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the 11th Circuit on Shahar’s behalf and assisted with the petition to the Supreme Court.
State sodomy laws not only attempted to police sexual behavior between people of the same gender but as we see in this case, they were used to enact wholesale discrimination against lesbians and gay men in every arena of life — from adoption to employment. After the landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas, sodomy laws were finally struck down and such discriminatory firings became easier to combat.
Lambda Legal’s Impact
Though the 11th Circuit supported Bowers’ discriminatory actions, and despite the fact that Shahar’s job was not restored, this case drew attention to the importance of the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Additionally, the impassioned dissents written by the minority of 11th Circuit judges affirmed Shahar’s constitutional rights claims and stressed that public prejudice and stereotypes are not legitimate bases for discrimination.
- November 1990 Shahar accepts a position with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office and makes plans to start work in the fall of 1991.
- July 1991 Georgia’s Attorney General Michael Bowers learns that Shahar is a lesbian and rescinds her job offer.
- 1993 A district court rules in favor of Bowers, upholding the job termination.
- December 1995 A three-judge panel overturns the district court decision, agreeing that the termination violated Shahar’s constitutional rights.
- May 1997 The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reviews the case and rules for Bowers.
- August 1997 The 11th Circuit denies Shahar’s petition for rehearing.
- October 1997 Shahar petitions the Supreme Court to review her case.
- January 1998 The Supreme Court declines to review the case, making the 11th Circuit decision for Bowers final.