In honor of Pride month, Jeff Block and Jeremy Tiedeman sat down with Bob Koch and talked about his work for equality and how he stays connected to the community.
What drew you to work for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division?
I grew up gay in a conservative household in the 1980s. I’ve always known what it’s like to feel like an outsider, to feel like you don’t belong. Standing up for the marginalized, those without a voice, is what drew me to the law, and to civil rights work in particular.
At USDOJ, I served in the Civil Rights Division for ten years. It was an incredible honor to work on groundbreaking civil rights cases around the country. As a trial lawyer, I worked with states to combat disability discrimination. As an appellate lawyer, I got to work on LGBTQ issues involving marriage equality and anti-trans legislation. I also worked to uphold convictions for perpetrators of hate crimes, human trafficking, and excessive force by law enforcement.
What role did you take in the DOJ’s work on the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case?
One of my proudest career moments was fighting for marriage equality in Obergefell. I was serving in the Appellate Section of the Civil Rights Division at that point. I took the lead on drafting the Department’s amicus brief on behalf of the Division and then helped to moot the Solicitor General in advance of his oral argument. The DOJ team who worked on the case then got to listen to the argument from the SG’s conference room at the Court.
How did you feel when the landmark verdict came in? Were you at home or with colleagues?
I was sitting in my office at DOJ staring at the live updates on SCOTUSblog. When I saw the decision, I shouted for joy, and we’re not talking an indoor-voices sort of shout either. Moments later, a section-wide email went out that began with, “In case you didn’t hear Bob…”
What role did you take in the Department’s challenge to North Carolina’s HB2 “bathroom bill”?
I had been working on transgender rights issues for a few years at that point, on recognizing discrimination against transgender individuals as a prohibited form of sex discrimination. When North Carolina enacted HB2, I took the lead on drafting the Department’s legal theories and justifications for challenging the bill.
What brought you to Tonkon Torp after all of this amazing work and experience?
I began my legal career here in Oregon clerking for Judge Graber on the Ninth Circuit. The day after my clerkship interview, I rented a car and drove through the Gorge, up to Hood, and out to the coast, all in one day. Oregon has been my adopted home ever since. After my clerkship, I always knew that I’d return to Oregon after my time at DOJ.
I was drawn to Tonkon Torp, not only for its reputation for excellent legal work, but also for its involvement in the Portland community. As Chair of the Appellate Practice Group, I get to dig into complex legal issue while maintaining an active-pro bono practice in Oregon’s appellate courts.
What do you think the most pressing rights issues are today for the LGBTQ+ community?
We’ve seen incredible progress in the last decade. The LGBTQ community has won landmark legal cases and gained greater acceptance than at any point in our history. But it’s hard to celebrate these hard-fought wins when we know that violence against trans people is on the rise and LGBTQ youth still face staggering rates of homelessness and suicide. The Human Rights Campaign reported that 2020 was the most violent year on record for people who are transgender or gender non-conforming, with the majority of victims being Black or Latinx.
Are you doing anything special for Pride this year? It could be harder to celebrate in the pandemic…
There just isn’t a way to replicate a Pride parade, float, or festival on Zoom. Pride celebrations are such an important time and way to recognize visibility, resilience, and acceptance. All my LGBTQ friends can remember their first Pride, I certainly remember mine. It gives queer people a sense of how broad and diverse the community is, and also how many straight allies are there celebrating with us. I’m already looking forward to the community coming together for Pride next year, in person.
Bob chairs Tonkon Torp's Appellate Practice Group. He represents individuals, companies, and government entities in state and federal appellate courts. Throughout his career, Bob has successfully handled appeals in the U.S. Supreme Court, Oregon Supreme Court, Oregon Court of Appeals, and federal courts of appeals across the country, including the Ninth Circuit.