Al Gore's Lawyer
Who did the former vice president call for help in arguing his case during the battle for Florida? Teresa Wynn Roseborough
Published in 2005 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 21, 2005
Updated on February 14, 2017
It’s hard to imagine Teresa Wynn Roseborough sleeping on the floor. She is neat and composed to the point of primness. Her somber-shaded suit jackets are buttoned, her snow-white blouse collars fastened all the way up, and her hair pulled back in a tight knot from her pleasant but serious face.
With her calm, studious manner she seems a likely choice for a federal judgeship — something hinted at by her colleagues. Yet peering over the thin rectangular frames of her glasses is an intense gaze that gives a clue about how this woman ended up tossing and turning on the high-gloss hardwoods.
In the fall of 2000, Roseborough’s intense beliefs about the Constitution pulled her and her co-workers at Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan (SA&B) through a string of 17 all-nighters as they put together arguments for a now-famous set of Bush v. Gore companion cases.
“We talk about ‘bet-the-company’ type litigation, which is what you most want to do; Bush v. Gore was ‘bet-the-country’ litigation,” says Ron Klain, a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore in 2000.
Klain, a partner with Washington, D.C.- based O’Melveny & Myers, first noticed Roseborough when he clerked for Justice Byron R. White; Roseborough was clerking at the same time for Justice John Paul Stevens. Later, they worked together at the Department of Justice, where Roseborough served at the Office of Legal Counsel and Klain as Attorney General Janet Reno’s chief of staff.
“She was brilliant, talented, determined, just an amazing lawyer,” says Klain. “In Florida, when it became apparent that the Gore cases were going to go to the 11th Circuit and that we would need an attorney there, there was no doubt in my mind who that was. I only made one phone call and it was to Teresa Wynn Roseborough.”
Roseborough argued before the 11th Circuit in the matters of Siegel v. LePore and Touchston v. McDermott, two separate but related appeals from supporters of then-GOP candidate George W. Bush, who wanted the court to throw out any election results that included manual recounts. The cases were heard back-to-back and Roseborough’s argument in each case lasted about two hours.
“She went toe-to-toe with Theodore Olson, who was later named solicitor general,” says David Adelman, a litigative partner at SA&B. “Then she turned around and argued Siegel. She did those two extremely important arguments back-to-back and she won.”
Roseborough, Peter Rubin and others have since formed the American Constitution Society (ACS). The ACS, although a nonpartisan group, helps counterbalance the conservative Federalist Society, says Roseborough, by providing a forum for rigorous intellect to be applied to interpretation of the Constitution.
Rubin, who served as counsel to Gore before the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore itself as well as Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board, remembers Roseborough’s poise in the midst of high emotions and frustration.
“Between 2 and 4 in the morning the notorious paper was filed before the 11th Circuit and the court said, ‘Don’t keep them from counting the ballots,’” says Rubin. “An hour and a half later, the Supreme Court stopped the count. Teresa was calm; she kept her composure.”
It was not the first time that she’d been at the center of a legal and political maelstrom. When she was 7 years old, Roseborough and her younger brother, Richard Wynn, were the first African-American children to integrate Memphis’ Westhaven Elementary. It was 1965, and for many school districts across the nation, the Supreme Court’s order requiring educational equality “with all deliberate speed” seemed open to interpretation — especially the speed part. The Wynn children were integrated nearly eight years after the court handed down its ruling.
Roseborough says only that her parents prepared her for the kinds of things that would happen and that the teachers did a good job with the situation. Her brother, who is now a doctor in family practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, is more forthcoming.
“The other children would have birthday parties, and those were not something to which we were usually invited,” Richard Wynn says.
“A child would say that we were not invited because, they would say, ‘My daddy doesn’t like black people,’ only they would not, of course, say ‘black people,’ they would use another term. Some children would actually apologize and say they wanted to invite us but if they did, their parents thought the other children might not come to the party.” Richard Wynn remembers his sister being hurt by these episodes. Nonetheless, their integration took place without any outright violence. That, he says, came later with full integration. Worried that the children would be bused to below-standard public schools, their parents enrolled them in a Catholic parochial school. (The fact that Roseborough attended a newly-integrated school was news to everyone interviewed for this story. “You would never know that she’d ever been in any unpleasant circumstances,” says Klain. “She’s an incredibly generous, open person who just seems to make the best of difficult situations.”)
It was while in high school that an achievement program called Youth Legislature allowed her peers to catch a glimpse of the woman Teresa Wynn would become. Her brother explains that she had always wanted to be a doctor while he wanted to be a lawyer. Teresa devoted herself to her science classes, but Richard’s swim coach at the YMCA was an advocate for the Youth Legislature and began lobbying the Wynns to get involved. Teresa represented her district in Tennessee and much to her surprise was elected lieutenant governor. Each state could nominate its best representative to compete nationally in statesmanship. Fifteen-year-old Teresa was one of four national finalists.
“That was really where she found her voice,” says Richard Wynn. “That was where she discovered that people would listen to what she had to say.”
By the time Teresa left high school, she and Richard were exchanging The Brethren, the first book exposing the inner conflicts of the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall had become her hero.
“I knew a lot about Thurgood Marshall and that lawyers are in a position to really help people,” says Roseborough, who, in 2002, was appointed to the Board of Advisors for the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina (where she graduated from law school with high honors). “I viewed lawyers as people like doctors — people with the ability to change society for the better.”
While she talks, she makes small, precise movements with her hands, like brackets of emphasis for her carefully chosen words. The mannerism is familiar to her clients.
“She very clearly and concisely can explain the client’s position,” says Nanette Edwards, senior regulatory counsel for ITC DeltaCom, a publicly traded telecom Roseborough has represented for six years. “She can take a very complex, highly technical issue and break it down so it’s easily communicated to the court. Some people just have a good demeanor and can get ideas across very well and she is one of those people.”
Roseborough, who is married to solo practitioner Joseph Anthony Roseborough, manages to have a private life, but even that informs her practice.
When asked what the most pressing constitutional concerns of the immediate future might be, she refers to a recent experience at a mall. Out with her 12-year-old daughter, she indulged in a rare purchase of fairly high-end cosmetics. Just moments after the purchase went through, her credit card company called her to verify that she had, indeed, made the purchase and that her card had not, in fact, been stolen. It was an echo of another recent episode when her health insurance provider had called to check into a couple of innocuous doctor’s office visits. The insurance provider even went so far as to make a guess as to the purpose of the visits.
Several things about these two events alarmed her: one, that a stranger could know exactly where she was; two, that this stranger could know exactly what she bought; and three, that the stranger’s database would show that such purchases or doctor’s office visits were out of the ordinary for her.
“The right to privacy and the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure is a major issue,” she says. “As technology improves and our ability to know what people are doing and how they are doing it and which products they are purchasing improves — keep in mind, your credit card company will know if you are using condoms — and as the ability of the government to access and analyze that data improves, it becomes a question of our rights as citizens to privacy under the Constitution.”
She alludes to the Rush Limbaugh medical records lawsuit.
“This is about individual security and the notion that if I become a suspect, the data could be used to force innocent people into compromising positions,” she says levelly, sure of her ground, and adds with a wry smile, “this is a constitutional issue.”
She pats her collar once as if checking to be sure it is still buttoned and continues, her hands clicking through their repertoire of punctuation, her eyes glinting with that telltale intensity, and she is at it again, on fire with thoughts of the inevitable battles, perhaps already considering an air mattress as a practical addition to her office.