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A Long Road for Man Behind the Case From Texas

Times Staff Writers

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to a Ten Commandments monument that sits on the Texas Capitol grounds represents the completion of one man’s remarkable odyssey.

Plaintiff Thomas Van Orden is homeless, lives in the woods here, carries all of his possessions in a duffel bag with a broken zipper and typically eats every other day to save money. For the last three years, he has pieced together his case at a borrowed desk in the basement of a public library.

“I am who I am,” Van Orden said in an interview last year.

Three years ago, he sued the state in federal court. His suit contends that a 5-foot-tall monolith inscribed with the Ten Commandments -- beginning with “I am the Lord thy God” -- violates the 1st Amendment’s ban on “establishment of religion.”

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In 2002, a federal judge ruled that the monument had a “valid secular purpose,” and last year the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed. The Supreme Court accepted Van Orden’s appeal Tuesday; it will be heard in February.

“This really shows that the ‘system’ takes the ‘little people’ seriously,” said Doug Laycock, a University of Texas law professor. Laycock is an expert on the Ten Commandments issue and an acquaintance of Van Orden’s.

“That’s going to be dwarfed by the strong feelings about the case on both sides,” he said. “But it’s important.”

Attempts to reach Van Orden on Tuesday were unsuccessful. He does not have a telephone, was not at the Texas State Law Library desk that librarians have ceded to his studies and has never revealed where he sleeps. Laycock and other acquaintances, who are in intermittent contact with him, said they also had been unable to reach him. They weren’t sure whether he knew he was headed to the Supreme Court.

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Van Orden, 60, has asked Erwin Chemerinsky, a prominent Duke University constitutional scholar and former USC law professor, to handle oral arguments before the high court.

But Chemerinsky said that Van Orden would be there with him and that it was Van Orden’s skilled legal argument that pushed the case to the fore.

“I have tremendous admiration for Thomas Van Orden for caring enough about this issue to bring the lawsuit, and to decide that he wanted to pursue it in front of the Supreme Court,” he said.

A native of Tyler, Texas, and a 1969 graduate of Southern Methodist University law school, Van Orden was considered a talented municipal and defense lawyer through the 1970s and 1980s.

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In 1989, by then living and practicing in Austin, he began to suffer from a psychological disorder -- a fear of humiliation that forced him to curtail social and professional interaction. Married with two children, he lost touch with his family and divorced. His career fell apart and by the late 1990s he was homeless.

He began visiting libraries to research his condition, and to teach himself to recover. Each day, he would pass the Ten Commandments monument while walking to a cafeteria to get hot water for the instant coffee he carries in his bag.

He said he began to feel that the monument, which is in a prominent position near the state Capitol’s main entrance, promoted Judaism and Christianity at the exclusion of other religions.

Last year Van Orden prepared for his appearance before the Court of Appeals by delivering arguments in a classroom with University of Texas law students sitting as a mock jury.

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Throughout his case, librarians posted updates on bulletin boards. Other than that, however, “he was really no different from the lawyers who come here to do research,” said Tony Estrada, director of the state law library.

“He didn’t ask for help,” Estrada said. “He was pretty independent. He could do it all himself.”

In the interviews last year, Van Orden said he had long had a dream that he would sleep in the bushes the night before appearing before the Supreme Court.

“How about that?” he said. “Only in America.”

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“I’ll leave that up to him,” Chemerinsky said with a laugh. “It would be my pleasure to provide him with a hotel room.”

Hart reported from Austin and Gold from Houston.


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