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Supreme Court on a Shoestring

In recent months, Van Orden's direct involvement in the case has been in the form of suggestions made to Chemerinsky in e-mails sent from the public computers at the Texas State and the University of Texas law libraries. Chemerinsky has mailed Van Orden the briefs submitted in the case and welcomed his comments.

Last November, almost a year after he spoke to Van Orden originally by telephone and began working on the case, Chemerinsky flew to Austin to meet the plaintiff and get a tour of the monument and the Capitol grounds. "He and I have never talked about his living circumstances," Chemerinsky said. "It has nothing to do with the case. He's asked me to do something very important and that is take his case to the Supreme Court."


The Ten Commandments monument, which sits outside the Texas state Capitol, violates the constitutional ban on the establishment of religion, according to plaintiff Thomas Van Orden. Van Orden, whose law license is suspended, sued the state and argued the case himself. (Sylvia Moreno -- The Washington Post)

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Texas's case will be argued by State Attorney General Greg Abbott. State Solicitor General R. Ted Cruz, who faced Van Orden during arguments in the Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, said the monument does not endorse a specific religion. According to the brief filed by Abbott in the Supreme Court, the Ten Commandments monument and the 16 others on the Capitol grounds commemorate the "people, events and ideals that have contributed to the history, diversity and culture of Texas."

"The Ten Commandments are unquestionably a sacred religious text, but they equally, unquestionably, have made important historical contributions to the development of Western legal codes and civilization," Cruz said. "That's why one finds the Ten Commandments in courthouses throughout the nation."

But as Van Orden often says, he did not sue the Ten Commandments. "I sued the state . . . to uphold the values found in the First Amendment." And he did it on less than a shoestring, using the public resources of the Texas State Law Library, a dollar here and there from friends and some small donations from supporters of his cause.

He got his U.S. District Court filing fee waived after being certified as a pauper and used a $4 disposable camera to take the pictures of the monument that he submitted into evidence. He walked to the federal court in Austin, where he initially argued his case, and then got a ride from a sympathetic UT law student to New Orleans so he could argue his appeal before the 5th Circuit. He said the experience was exhilarating yet stressful.

"The subject was to me like strawberry pie. I love it; I love constitutional law. But the practicality of it, that wears on you," he said. "Even if you get money to make copies [of briefs], then how are you going to get postage to mail them? Each time, it was a different thing, but somehow I managed."

For Van Orden, this case was not just about fighting for a constitutional right. It was about redemption.

"I felt alive again," said Van Orden, who graduated from Southern Methodist University law school in 1970, then served in the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's office for two years during the Vietnam War. He practiced criminal defense law in Tyler, Houston and Dallas, got his pilot's license and was a flight instructor before moving to Austin in 1993. But by then, his life had begun to unravel.

Texas State Bar records show Van Orden's law license was suspended in 1985, in 1989 and in 1999 -- mostly for taking money from clients for work that he did not perform and for failing to pay fees ordered in disciplinary judgments. The 1995 suspension also ordered him to provide a psychiatric opinion certifying that his "current state of mental health does not render him incapable of routine law practice."

Van Orden remains on active suspension, prohibited from representing anyone in court other than himself, because he has failed to pay fees ordered in the 1995 disciplinary judgment, a bar official said. He also has not paid the bar dues to reactivate his license.

Van Orden would not discuss the disciplinary cases other than to say, "That's in the past, when I was sinking into oblivion." He said he overcame his depression, but won't discuss how. "Unfortunately, your life is destroyed by then," he said.

He has two ex-wives and two children, none of whom he has seen in years, and he considers himself a loner. He chafes at the fact that the Ten Commandments case has gained him fame as "the homeless lawyer," saying: "Where I sleep at night, is this important compared to what I read during the day? What do you think defines me: Where I slept or what I did all day?"

For him, the important story is that of "the little guy" who went up against the powerful state.

"You can still do it with a piece of paper, a pen and a law book," Van Orden said. "But that will be lost in all the hoopla of the Ten Commandments."


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