In a large lecture course about evidence — how to assess and apply it — a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School in the early 1980s stood out to Professor Frank Tuerkheimer.
What she possessed, the law professor said, was not simply “book smarts” but also keen judgment. He asked her to assist him in his work representing the state board that monitors attorney misconduct and came to see the student as an equal. “We were on the same wavelength,” he said. “She knew what mattered and what didn’t. She was able to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
Now, Tuerkheimer is watching as his former student, Debra Katz, strives to air evidence against Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, in a contest roiling the nation. Katz represents Christine Blasey Ford, the research psychologist who claims that Kavanaugh, then 17, pinned her down when she was 15, covered her mouth with his hand and grinded against her — an allegation that the nominee denies.
Katz, in other words, is the woman working mostly behind the scenes to allow Kavanaugh’s accuser to tell her story and to protect Ford from threats that have already driven her from her home. Those who know and have worked with Katz describe her as a meticulous and battle-tested attorney, as someone who vets her clients carefully and doesn’t take on cases merely because she sympathizes with victims of exploitation and abuse.
Yet she’s no political neutral. By her own words, she is part of the resistance against the 45th president.
“This administration’s explicit agenda is to wage an assault on our most basic rights — from reproductive rights to our rights to fair pay,” she said last year in an interview with the National Women’s Law Center. “ . . . We are determined to resist — fiercely and strategically.”
Her views test a line between legal advocacy and political activism at a moment when sexual harassment and gender discrimination have become the terrain on which American political warfare is being waged.
“I have immense gratitude for the advocacy and intelligent counsel provided by Debra Katz and Lisa Banks during these very challenging weeks,” Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, said in a statement Sunday to The Washington Post.
Katz and Banks are partners at Katz, Marshall & Banks, a D.C. firm founded in 2006 to represent plaintiffs in the areas of whistleblower law, civil rights, employment discrimination and sexual harassment. Katz has won recognition for her work, including as one of the “Top 10 Plaintiff’s Attorneys to Fear Most” and as D.C.’s “Civil Rights Lawyer of the Year” — accolades she lists on her website.
Among her clients are Irwin Reiter, a longtime Weinstein Co. executive who reportedly attempted to console a temporary front desk assistant who claims to have been harassed, and Chloe Caras, a former manager in Mike Isabella’s restaurant empire who accused Isabella and his business partners of “extraordinary sex-based hostility and abuse.” In a statement to The Post, Reiter praised Katz’s “utmost professionalism and concern for me and all of the survivors who have been impacted by Harvey Weinstein.”
In many ways, Katz is the consummate lawyer for the #MeToo movement. In a December 2016 article written for Ms. Magazine, titled “Not Okay,” she dismissed Trump’s defense of his degrading language as “locker-room talk” and offered a withering judgment of the president-elect, whose “demeaning and sexually aggressive statements,” she wrote, constituted “unlawful sex discrimination.” A profile in the Wisconsin Law School alumni magazine labeled her a “#MeToo advocate,” a forerunner of the social movement to root out sexual violence and gender discrimination.
“While this movement has amplified her career-long efforts, Katz has been steadily working toward change for decades,” the magazine noted.
But this portrait of the lawyer as a passionate activist is also fueling a right-wing crusade against Katz, who in recent days has conducted high-wire negotiations with Senate Republicans over the timing and terms of Ford’s testimony before the Judiciary Committee. An appearance is expected Thursday.
Critics say both Ford and her attorney are Democratic loyalists with an ulterior motive — a notion that Katz denied last week on NBC’s “Today” show by arguing that “no one in their right mind, regardless of their motive, would want to inject themselves into this process and face the kind of annihilation that she will be subjected to by those who want this nominee to go through.” Katz also pointed out that Ford initially “was quite reluctant to come forward.” Still, her story leaked.
The Daily Caller dug up video of Katz from what appears to be a protest of the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general in which the lawyer says: “We’re going to fight back. We are going to resist. We will not be silent.” In the clip, she is identified as a “protester” by ABC’s “Good Morning America.” She has donated to numerous Democratic candidates, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Katz and Banks, her legal partner, recently canceled a fundraiser for Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), originally scheduled for October, CNN reported. “We’re going to be focused on the issues involving the Kavanaugh confirmation process,” Katz told the network. In the interview with the alumni magazine, she touched on a variety of volatile issues, including immigration and gun control. “When I go to a march on behalf of dreamers, I hear young people making connections between DACA and Islamophobia,” she said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary protection to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. “I hope that energy continues, to retake our democracy that is truly at risk now.”
And last week, Megyn Kelly, the NBC host, described Katz as a “Democratic activist,” saying it was hypocritical of the lawyer to have been “defensive of Bill Clinton” when Paula Jones accused the Democratic president of misconduct. Commenting in 1998 on those accusations, Katz said that if she were approached with the same facts — someone “propositioned her but only once and she suffered no tangible job detriment” — she would tell the complainant, “Sorry, it’s unfair, but you don’t have a case.”
“If it’s one time, it has to be severe, almost a sexual assault, not just a touching of somebody’s breast or buttocks or even forceful kissing,” Katz said.
The evidence in the two cases is “qualitatively different,” said Joseph M. Sellers, a civil rights and employment lawyer with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. “It’s not a double standard.”
Sellers, a longtime colleague of Katz’s, said she “has nerves of steel.”
“She pursues things that other people would think — they don’t want to go there — and she tends to do it in a way that is very skillful and I would say classy,” Sellers said. “She is somebody who does not have hidden agendas. She says what she means, and she acts on what she says.”
Though her cases have had consequences on Capitol Hill — she represented aides whose claims of sexual harassment led to the resignation of Reps. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) and Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) — Katz’s specialty has not been congressional work. Still, her skills as a litigator carry over to “what’s needed in representing a client before Congress,” namely careful preparation and deft negotiation, said Carolyn Lerner, the former head of the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates whistleblower complaints.
Lerner said Katz represented clients “from across the political spectrum” before the federal agency. She developed a reputation for bringing credible cases, Lerner said, in large part because of the research that she put into them. Whereas many lawyers send one- or two-page demand letters formally stating a legal claim, Lerner said, “I’ve seen demand letters from Debbie that are probably 15 pages long.”
“Opposing counsel know that when someone is represented by Debbie, they should be taken seriously,” she said.
In addition to whistleblowers — former congressmen, aerospace executives, pharmaceutical sales representatives — Katz’s clients include many women, as well as students. She has taken on universities, the National Institutes of Health, media organizations and State Department contractors. In 2004, she represented Roger L. Barnes, a former accountant at Fannie Mae, the mortgage financing giant, who said he was threatened for raising concerns about the company’s accounting, in a case that led to one of the largest restatements of earnings to date.
Not all her efforts have been successful. Last year, a federal judge in Virginia dismissed a lawsuit Katz had filed on behalf of five former University of Mary Washington students alleging that the university had fostered a hostile sexual environment by failing to protect members of a feminist group from threats made on the social media platform Yik Yak. The case is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
Katz is guided by the interests of her clients, not her own political sympathies, said Marcia Greenberger, the co-founder and former president of the National Women’s Law Center, who met Katz when the young lawyer was participating in Georgetown’s Women’s Law & Public Policy Fellowship Program in the 1980s. She dismissed the idea that Katz is out to battle the Trump administration.
“I’ve seen her be as publicly strong and assertive as it’s possible to be, and I’ve seen her also behind the scenes be supportive of those clients who have decided that they don’t want that kind of public profile, that they just don’t want to come forward because the price is too high,” Greenberger said.
Although she is at the center of the #MeToo movement, Katz also has a longer-term perspective, Greenberger said. She was a young lawyer when the all-male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned the credibility of Anita Hill and quibbled with her about the lurid details of her accusations against Judge Clarence Thomas.
Greenberger said she had despaired at the time that “women may never come forward after seeing what happened to Anita Hill.”
“One of the things that gave me hope was seeing lawyers like Debbie come forward and be trained and committed to putting their skills to work to represent such women,” she said. “I think she is steeped in understanding of the ways in which women are demeaned under these circumstances and the ways in which their harassers and assaulters use all kinds of strategies to try to shut them down.”
Tuerkheimer, her former professor, noted that Katz was in law school at the time that Ford alleges the assault took place at a house party in the Washington suburbs. He couldn’t recall his student speaking about issues of sexual misconduct or workplace harassment. “It was the early ’80s,” he said. “It was a different time.” Her interest in public service was clear, Tuerkheimer said, but he couldn’t have predicted then that gender equity would become one of her causes.
Katz grew up in a Jewish household on Long Island, where the horrors of the Holocaust were invoked as a call to seek justice, she told Washingtonian magazine in June.
“My father says that I was born arguing about fairness and social justice issues, and that attending law school was just a formality,” she says in a quote on her firm’s website.
She attended Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and went on to law school in Madison, where she played softball and served as a member of the Wisconsin Law Review and as an editor of the Wisconsin Women’s Law Journal.
By her own account, she was hardly blind to racial and gender inequities, even at a time when such issues were often overlooked. She told the alumni magazine that she grew troubled by the lack of diversity among the law review’s ranks.
“There was lip service given to valuing diversity, but in practice, students of color were excluded from participating,” Katz said. “After arguing unsuccessfully for the need to revamp selection criteria to be more inclusive, I resigned and co-founded the Women’s Law Journal.”