TERRE HAUTE – On that day a dozen years ago, the black-robed justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sat behind the elevated bench, facing down at Jim Bopp.
Three-hundred other people – lawyers, visitors and journalists – filled chairs and seats behind Bopp in the iconic courtroom in Washington, D.C. Bopp, an attorney whose office sits at Sixth and Wabash streets in downtown Terre Haute, was about to argue a case before the highest court in the land for the first time in his legal career.
He knew the turf, having filed dozens of briefs with the Supreme Court since the 1970s. He’d studied the justices’ personalities for decades. Still, the scene around Bopp as he prepared to present an oral argument – in person, to the Supreme Court, for the first time – impressed him.
That you don’t forget, Bopp recalled during an in-depth interview with the Tribune-Star in his Terre Haute office last month.
I wouldn’t say I was nervous. Your adrenaline flows. It does focus your mind, he continued.
What was unusual about it – which I didn’t expect, which really struck me – was, when you stand up, you realize that you’re all alone, because you’re in kind of an intimate setting, as far as the Supreme Court members, themselves. They’re up, but they’re close.
In that 2002 case, Bopp challenged the constitutionality of a Minnesota law prohibiting judicial candidates from expressing their views on political and legal issues.
A veteran attorney for conservative causes, Bopp represented the Republican Party of Minnesota.
As he’s discovered, the lawyer at the lectern stands isolated in that courtroom, in multiple ways.
You’re the only one standing in the entire room, and that’s why you feel alone, I think, Bopp said.
Plus, the focus is on you. You’re there for a half an hour. All the questions are directed at you, and everybody is watching you. You also know the audience is divided in half. One half doesn’t agree with you and hopes you screw up and lose.
The other half may agree with you, but the lawyers among that half want to steal your clients, so actually they kind of hope you screw up, too.
That’s why I always make sure I’ve brought as many of my family as I could, so I’ll have some people unqualifiedly for me, he added with a hearty laugh.
Bopp got the last laugh in that 2002 case, too. In addition to his family members, five Supreme Court justices favored his argument – a 5-4 landmark decision, as he puts it.
In the 12 years since, the now white-haired, bespectacled 66-year-old has become a familiar face in that courtroom.
He’s won nine of 13 cases – decided on their merits – in the U.S. Supreme Court. Several of those victories also carry that landmark label.
Bopp has crisscrossed the nation for more than 30 years, working on more than 150 cases in state and federal courts, knocking down laws he believes inhibit the expression of free speech in political campaigns by citizens, candidates, issue-advocacy groups and, yes, corporations.
In the often arcane world of campaign finance law, he’s a veritable rock star, said Dave Levinthal, who investigates the influence of money in politics for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.
Outside that realm, among folks who aren’t political junkies and haven’t seen Bopp on the cover of the American Bar Association Journal, his exploits are less known. Even in his hometown.
People don’t know I do these things, Bopp said with a slight grin.
It’s Terre Haute’s little secret, said Eric Abel, a local attorney and Bopp’s former law partner, that a constitutional law expert has a law office on Sixth and Wabash.
At one time, Abel wouldn’t have been surprised to see Bopp move to Washington to practice law and live, but he realizes now that Bopp prefers Indiana.
Legal colleagues in the nation’s capital occasionally ask Bopp why he continues to commute.
My answer is, we (he and his wife, Tina) chose to live here because it was relatively socially conservative, and it’s where we wanted to raise our three daughters, in a place like that, Bopp said.
Plus, the clients kept coming to me, he said.
Today, Bopp and his wife make their home in Zionsville, where they moved a year ago to be close to their three daughters (and first grandchild), who all live near Indianapolis. He maintains offices in Zionsville and Terre Haute.
Even though Bopp experiences relative anonymity in Indiana, average Hoosiers may recognize the effects of what Bopp does through the ways recent elections have unfolded. The gradual sea change in election law hit high tide in 2010, and Bopp stirred those waters.
A Supreme Court ruling in 2010 – Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission – overturned restrictions on spending by corporations and labor unions to support or defeat political candidates. Bopp initiated the case in 2008, defending the conservative nonprofit Citizens United’s attempts to air a 90-minute television program in opposition to then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The case was a challenge to campaign law prohibiting ads by corporations shortly before an election.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s Jan. 21, 2010, decision in favor of Citizens United unleashed an election spending flood. Just days later, the decision drew a rebuke from President Obama as he looked down at the Supreme Court justices attending his State of the Union speech, warning that elections could become bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests.
In the 2012 elections, candidates, their parties and super PACs spent a record $7 billion, according to FEC figures cited in Politico.com.
Critics see the unbridling of campaign participation as a threat to democracy. Bopp views it as the First Amendment at work, ensuring free speech for all, including corporations.
The question is, why should (corporations) be deprived of the same freedom everybody else has? Bopp asked, rhetorically. And, of course, under the First Amendment, the answer is, they can’t be.
He sees political advocacy groups as a way people of average means can join together to pool resources and have a voice in politics.
Bopp’s involvement in campaign law can be traced to his longtime role as general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee and his successful defense of the voter guides the NRLC distributed during the 1980 election, detailing candidates’ stances on abortion and social issues. The guides earned credit, or blame, depending on point of view, for defeating 12 incumbent Democratic U.S. senators and electing Ronald Reagan president.
It took me right into campaign finance, Bopp recalled, and of course, that’s what I do now more than anything – way more than anything.
That career focus wasn’t accidental.
It was definitely intentional. I was always interested in government and politics. And second-semester organic chemistry (at Indiana University) convinced me that I would not become a doctor, Bopp said, chuckling. So then I decided, I’ll be a lawyer.’ And then politics, government and law just fit together.
Bopp briefly represented Matt Kelty, the 2007 Republican candidate for Fort Wayne mayor who was charged with campaign finance violations and perjury. Kelty was convicted in 2008 of two felony charges of filing fraudulent campaign reports.
Abel recalled Bopp as a typical high school kid who got involved in politics. In 1965, Abel – then a student at Schulte High School – and Bopp formed the Vigo County Teenage Republicans. In a Democratic-leaning county, their meetings drew about 30 teens from seven local high schools.
Fourteen years later, legal work reunited them as public servants and as partners with a handful of fellow attorneys in a Terre Haute law firm (which dissolved in the early 1990s). Abel won election as Vigo County prosecutor as a Republican and enlisted Bopp as deputy prosecutor for felony trials.
He took his job very seriously. He was very effective in felony prosecutions, Abel said. Bopp’s true niche as an attorney awaited on the horizon.
I think he has certainly found his calling, Abel said of Bopp’s current activities in support of conservative causes. He was a standout attorney in the prosecutor’s office, but he has not missed his calling.
Right to Life brought Bopp his first experiences on a national scale. Although influenced as a young man by his physician father’s opposition to abortion, Bopp’s connection to the anti-abortion rights organization as its general counsel occurred purely (by) happenstance. In 1975, his law practice was in Indianapolis, and an editor of the Indianapolis News recommended Bopp to the newly formed Indiana Right to Life. Within three years, he’d ascended to the national committee’s general counsel job. In 1980, the NRLC’s voter guides case arose. His career trajectory was set.
Today, Bopp’s personal résumé spans 44 pages and nearly four decades, dotted with his associations with a who’s who of Republican politics, high-profile court cases and appearances in national media reports.
His political activity has included holding and seeking select party positions. But he’s turned down suggestions to run for public office himself.
I have no interest. The last office I ran for was president of the student body at IU, and I lost because the campus was way too liberal, and I was a conservative and known as a conservative.
Last month, at the Indiana Republican Party convention in Fort Wayne, Bopp successfully pushed for the state GOP to define marriage as between one man and one woman in its 2014 platform. The party had dropped the traditional marriage definition in 2012. Bopp worked to have it reinserted and called support for it at the convention above 80 percent and overwhelming.
At the convention, a second sentence was added to that strong family structures plank, recognizing that some families are much more diverse and we support the blended families, grandparents, guardians and loving adults who successfully raise and nurture children to reach their full potential every day.
That reinsertion of a traditional marriage affirmation comes while the concept of same-sex marriage has made headlines in Indiana. Just five days ago, a federal judge ruled the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Earlier this year, the Republican dominated Indiana Legislature delayed until 2016 a statewide referendum through which voters could etch the ban into the state’s constitution.
Regardless of shifts in public opinion, Bopp saw the reappearance of traditional marriage language as important in the Republican state platform.
We’re not for (same-sex marriage), but we certainly recognize that other forms of families can be successful – can be, Bopp said last Tuesday. But marriage between a man and a woman is by far the most successful form, in terms of raising children. So it’s the ideal, and we’re driving toward the ideal. We’re talking about public policy. We want to encourage what is best.
When asked Friday if last week’s judicial ruling against Indiana’s same-sex marriage ban would affect the state party’s 2014 platform language regarding marriage, Bopp answered by email, No. This does not change the fact that traditional marriage is the best basis for a strong family that benefits everyone involved.
Of course, Bopp’s views of what’s best face vigorous opposition.
In May, Bopp also served as lead attorney for the Republican National Committee as it sued the FEC for the ability to raise unlimited money from individual donors, just as super PACs now do. David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, told The Associated Press, If successful, this case will give the wealthiest among us even more influence in politics, further drowning out voices of everyday people who can’t write huge checks.
Last July, the James Madison Center for Free Speech – a nonprofit Bopp founded in 1997 – drew accusations from a Washington watchdog group over the financial relationship between the center and Bopp’s law office. Bopp serves as general counsel of the center, which shares the same Terre Haute address as the law office. Bopp told the Tribune-Star in July the group’s allegations were ideologically motivated and that its mission was to smear conservatives.
In court, George T. Patton Jr. – an attorney for the Indianapolis firm Bose McKinney & Evans – is frequently on the opposite side from Bopp in cases involving campaign speech by judicial candidates. In those cases, the future impartiality of prospective judges gets weighed against free speech considerations. Patton defends the impartiality concerns, while Bopp pushes for the candidates to speak openly.
Jim’s a good lawyer, does his work, pleads passionately for these causes, Patton said last month by telephone. I respect him. I disagree with him, but I respect him. And that’s why we have courts, to resolve these disputes.