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Mary Catherine Roper L’93 wins Philadelphia Bar Foundation Award

November 12, 2012

Mary Catherine Roper L'93
Mary Catherine Roper L’93
Mary Catherine Roper L’93, recipient of the 2012 Philadelphia Bar Foundation Award, speaks to Penn Law about her public interest career.

Mary Catherine Roper L’93 has been named recipient of the 2012 Philadelphia Bar Foundation Award, which recognizes a public interest attorney who provides exceptional service to the non-profit legal services community.

Roper, the Senior Staff Attorney at ACLU of Pennsylvania, received the award November 3, at a reception preceding the Bar Foundation Andrew Hamilton Gala.

As Senior Staff Attorney, Roper is responsible for about half of the Pennsylvania ACLU’s legal docket, focusing primarily on students’ rights, free speech, freedom of association, police misconduct, and criminal justice reform.

She spoke recently with Penn Law about her background, what attracted her to law school and how Penn Law put her on the path to an award-winning public interest career.

Penn Law (PL): How did you come to enroll in Penn Law?

Roper: I grew up in Redlands, CA, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, and crossed the continent to attend Bryn Mawr College, where I fell in love with the Philadelphia area. When I graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1987 I wasn’t sure I wanted to attend law school yet, so I worked in law firms in Philadelphia to figure out what the life of a lawyer was like. I had planned on a career in public interest law, so I maintained my California residency and in the fall of 1990 began my first year of law school at University of California Hastings College of the Law. But I missed the life (and love interest) I had left in Philadelphia and so transferred to Penn in the fall of my 2L year.

PL: What attracted you to a public interest career?

Roper: The first thing that made me seriously consider a career in the law was reading the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy statute and rejected the argument that people have a right to engage in homosexual relationships. I was offended by the outcome, but more to the point, I was offended by the shallowness of the reasoning offered by the majority. I thought, “Our courts should be better than that. I want to make them do better than that.” I have always wanted to change the fact that our society works to help some and works to keep others down, but it was the Hardwick decision that pointed me toward the law as the tool I would use for that work.

PL: How did Penn Law support your professional aspirations?

Roper: From my first day on campus, Gary Clinton [then Registrar] was always ready to help me get integrated, encourage my campus activism, and assure me that I had a place at Penn, which was something I needed after transferring from a very different law school to a place where I knew no one. Gary [now Dean of Students] remains one of the law school’s very best assets, in my view. Then Penn Law’s public service program gave me the doorway I needed into different aspects of the Philadelphia public interest community, and introduced me to professors – especially Seth Kreimer – who guided and encouraged me at each step. In particular, Professor Lesnick’s public interest practice class gave me the opportunity to work with Prof. Kreimer and the Women’s Law Project on the Supreme Court brief in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. And the Civil Practice Clinic gave me my first opportunity to get into court.

Those experiences (both the wins and the losses) and the unfailing support and wisdom of my supervisor, Harriet Katz, were enormously influential to me. The connections I made through Penn Law helped me to expand my work in the Philadelphia public interest community even while I was in private practice. Those connections – and the support of Prof. Kreimer – are what enabled me to make the transition to full-time public interest work when my position – staff attorney in the Philadelphia office of the ACLU – opened up for the first time in 19 years.

PL: What are your future plans?

Roper: I have the best job in the world and hope to stay where I am until I retire. But that doesn’t mean I am without ambition. I am shifting the focus of my work primarily to the areas of racial justice and criminal justice reform, and working with other ACLU offices as well as Pennsylvania partners to begin long-term strategies to address some of the most devastating and racially discriminatory impacts of the war on drugs and our national and state addiction to incarceration as the “answer” to every social problem.