WASHINGTON — Four years ago, during what one participant called a "cesspool" of controversy within the gay rights movement over how to respond to the passage of California's gay marriage ban, a lawsuit was filed in federal District Court in Oakland in near secrecy.
When it was announced four days later after a long holiday weekend, the gay legal establishment responded with open dismay, fearing the risk from a case that could lead to an unfavorable ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court.
With the Supreme Court poised to render a ruling this week that is widely expected to strike a blow against Proposition 8 and perhaps overturn it outright, Chad Griffin, the onetime Los Angeles political consultant and public relations man who dared to bring the lawsuit, has become a major player in Washington, regarded with grudging respect by his former adversaries and hailed as a visionary by his friends.
"No matter what happens in the decision, Chad will be known as a historic figure in the fight for equality because he pushed the envelope," said Dan Pfeiffer, senior advisor to President Obama and a former Georgetown University roommate of Griffin's.
"The legal and political people thought Chad was moving too fast, but actually he saw where the country was going and what was possible before anyone else."
With same-sex marriage legal in 12 states and public opinion solidly in favor, it is easy to forget the pessimism that prevailed among many supporters after Proposition 8 passed in California in November 2008.
At the time the suit was filed, three states allowed same-sex marriage; 44 banned it. Public opinion was hard against it. Influential religious groups, including the Mormon and Roman Catholic churches, had helped lead the opposition. Even President Obama was not in favor.
Prominent people from gay legal groups called Griffin's suit "risky and premature," "an attempt to short-circuit the process," and an effort that would "likely set us all back."
"There were a number of legal advocates who thought it was too soon to go to the Supreme Court," said Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal, the largest gay legal group, which opposed filing the suit. "Most people watching the court thought it was going to be an uphill battle to strike down marriage laws of more than 30 states."
Griffin was hardly a figure to inspire confidence in the halls of justice. Then 35, he had not worked primarily on gay issues. He had come out as a gay man only eight years earlier. He was not a lawyer, but a consultant in his own firm who specialized in high-profile Hollywood clients. He was an unknown to much of the gay and civil liberties legal establishment.
But Griffin had learned his way around political campaigns at the highest levels. Born in Hope, Ark., the hometown of Bill Clinton, he was barely old enough to vote when he walked into Clinton's 1992 campaign headquarters in Little Rock and volunteered in the press office.
"He was the kind of intern who would not only do what you asked, he would do something else," recalled Dee Dee Myers, who became Clinton's White House press secretary. "As sometimes happens in campaigns, we piled more and more responsibility on him."
When Clinton moved to the White House, Myers took Griffin with her, with the understanding that in a couple of years he would quit and start college. The 19-year-old became what officials referred to as the youngest presidential aide in history.
At the White House he met Rob Reiner, and after Georgetown, Reiner brought Griffin to Los Angeles to run his charitable foundation and manage a series of political campaigns, including successful ballot initiatives for children's healthcare and stem cell research. He bought a house in Los Feliz. He was brought in at the last minute to help oppose Proposition 8, but it was too late.
The idea to file the lawsuit was the product of an accidental meeting at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Griffin was having lunch with Reiner, Reiner's wife and Griffin's business partner when a former journalist and friend of the Reiners', Kate Moulene, stopped by and suggested they hire her former brother-in-law, Theodore Olson, to challenge Proposition 8 in court.
Hiring Olson seemed like a radical idea. He had been President George W. Bush's solicitor general and had represented President Reagan both in the Justice Department and personally. He was a committed member of the conservative movement involved in the legal effort to impeach Clinton. He had argued and won Bush vs. Gore, which resolved the 2000 election, in the Supreme Court.
But as Moulene knew, Olson was committed to individual liberties. From a public relations standpoint, his involvement would be a coup. From a legal standpoint, few people had argued more cases at the high court.
In the months after filing the suit, Griffin was under what one colleague called "a white-hot spotlight." Some liberals mistrusted Olson's motives. Not trusting Olson and Griffin to handle the suit by themselves, three groups attempted to intervene, which would have given them a measure of control.
Griffin was outraged. He wrote a letter denouncing the would-be interveners, accusing them of trying to undermine the case, and released it publicly. They expressed shock.
Griffin defended his decision and the letter with an eye to history.
"If you just look through the history of time, there's always reason to wait," he said in his Washington office.
"There's always someone who wants to slow down. At the same time there are real live people who provide that sense of urgency about why we can't wait. And we had the best lawyers, the right strategy and the right plaintiffs."
Part of that strategy was to combine Olson with his Democratic opponent in Bush vs. Gore, David Boies. That combination attracted major donors to support the lawsuit.
"Chad had essentially found a way to take two of the most powerful legal minds in the country — who had often been at odds — together, and that was such a seismically different way of approaching this issue," said producer and director J.J. Abrams, one of the key backers of the lawsuit. "I just thought it spoke to his boldness and his willingness to think out of the box to get what needs to be done done."