Sherrilyn Ifill

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Follow her on Twitter @Sifill_LDF.

    Yesterday, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether states can exclude gays and lesbians from the benefits of marriage, the crisis in Baltimore flooded the airwaves and brought renewed attention to long-simmering issues of racial justice. While the two issues might seem worlds apart, the often-overlooked truth is that both come down to the fundamental question of whether we as a nation take seriously the responsibility to confer equal dignity upon every citizen.

    It is Justice Anthony Kennedy who has elevated the principle of human dignity in a series of rulings. In a 2003 decision that decriminalized “homosexual conduct,” Justice Kennedy stressed that adults must “retain their dignity as free persons.” When the Court eliminated the death penalty for children, a majority led by Kennedy explained that the U.S. Constitution “reaffirms the duty of the government to respect the dignity of all persons.”  In a 2013 decision striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, Kennedy’s opinion emphasized the principle that gays and lesbians “occupy the same status and dignity” as heterosexuals.  Yesterday, at oral argument, Kennedy again raised this concern, stressing that the whole purpose of marriage is “enhancing the dignity of both the parties.”

    Yet it is not only Justice Kennedy.  In 1954, the Court in Brown v. Board unanimously struck down segregation in schools, precisely because it engendered a “feeling of inferiority as to [students’] status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”  In upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court stressed “the personal dignity” of individuals who seek to access public accommodations on an equal basis.

    Most relevant to marriage equality, dignity has animated the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and its litigation dating back to the 1960s case of Loving v. Virginia.  Loving involved a married, interracial couple who were dragged out of bed by police in the middle of the night, hauled to jail, and eventually exiled from the state for 25 years in return for a suspended one-year jail term.  Not coincidentally, Virginia charged the Lovings with violating “dignity of the Commonwealth.”  LDF argued that this was unconstitutional and violated the fundamental right to marry and the justices unanimously agreed.  Building upon Loving, LDF filed a brief last month in the Supreme Court underscoring that “all persons yearn and deserve to be treated with equal dignity and respect, both individually and as married couples.”

  • November 5, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Several years before the U.S. Supreme Court greatly hobbled the landmark Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a federal appeals court circuit provided a significant boost to ignoble state efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, students, the poor and the elderly. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit turned away a constitutional challenge and upheld a stringent voter ID law in Indiana.

    Recently Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who authored the Court’s opinion that was subsequently upheld the by the U.S. Supreme Court, said he erred. Posner (pictured), who now says laws like Indiana’s are “widely regarded” as tools to suppress the vote, suggested that his error in Crawford was partly due to poor presentation of the evidence that the law would disproportionately suppress groups of voters. (In this piece for ACSblog, longtime Supreme Court litigator Paul M. Smith, who argued Crawford before the high court, explains why Posner had plenty of compelling information to vote the other way and invalidate the Indiana law.)

    In a piece for The National Law Journal, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, addressing Posner’s comments, goes further, noting that far too many judges view constitutional challenges to state Voter ID laws with “skepticism.”

    Ifill writes, “Without a doubt, lawyers advancing claims of discrimination should have to prove their case. But judges also should be aware of their own lack of experience and knowledge.”

    For example, Ifill cites a 2010 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that rejected a racial discrimination lawsuit, claiming there was not sufficient evidence that a white supervisor calling a black worker “boy” amounted to racism. Ifill then turned to the more recent Shelby County opinion, where the high court’s conservative justices banded together to decided “that they were better positioned than Congress to determine whether racial discrimination in voting still justifies the coverage regime that existed under” the Voting Rights Act. “Not even 15,000 pages of evidence and testimony could convince the court that Congress got it right.”

    The problem here, Ifill explains is that we all imagine we are experts on what accounts for discrimination. The truth is we are not, including judges. “We are too often,” Ifill writes “unwilling or unable to defer to the substantiated experiences of those who stand directly vulnerable to discrimination in voting, housing, employment and countless other arenas.”

    And many voters, primarily minorities, continue to suffer as state after state creates new and onerous hurdles to voting. Posner may now be able to acknowledge what many others do – too many state voter ID laws are all about suppressing the vote. But as Ifill explains, many judges are just ill-equipped to understand the scope and depth of discrimination despite the evidence provided them.

    For detailed information on state restrictions on voting, see the ACS’s Voting Rights Resources.

  • November 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    One of the nation’s preeminent civil and human rights groups, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), tapped as its new leader one of the nation’s foremost civil rights attorneys and scholars Sherrilyn Ifill. The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall helped found LDF in 1940 and led the battle in its first couple of decades to end segregation of the public schools.

    Ifill (pictured), a frequent ACS participant, who has also occasionally provided guest posts for ACSblog, will be LDF’s next president and director-counsel in January. She is also a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, and as The Root notes is “no stranger to LDF’s work.”

    The Root continues:

    Early in her career, before joining the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Law, authoring On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, and making a name for herself as a respected civil rights strategist, she served as assistant counsel in LDF’s New York office. There, she litigated voting rights cases, including the landmark Voting Rights Act case Houston Lawyers' Association vs. Attorney General of Texas.

    In March, LDF’s sixth Director-Counsel and President John Payton died. Payton, like his predecessors at LDF, was also a tireless advocate for civil liberties and human rights. In a tribute piece to Payton, ACS Board member and former LDF Director-Counsel and President Theodore M. Shaw said Payton’s “advocacy on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the excluded reached beyond the United States. He worked against the apartheid in South Africa, and traveled around the world in support of rights.”     

  • November 17, 2010
    Top officials of the George W. Bush administration, including Bush himself, have loudly, and often, proclaimed their approval of interrogation methods of military detainees that under international and domestic law amount to torture, and their actions undermine the nation's supposed commitment to the rule of law, writes University of Maryland law school professor Sherrilyn Ifill.

    In an article for The Root, Ifill notes that during recent promotion of his book, Decision Points, Bush says he had no problem approving the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush writes that when asked by the CIA whether it could use waterboarding in its interrogations of Mohammed, he replied "Damn right."

    President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and international legal experts, The Washington Post reports, have all condemned waterboarding as torture. But, Ifill writes, Bush and many of other officials from his administration have continued to proclaim their support of waterboarding, and attack the Obama administration on its national security policies.

    But more troubling than the political consequences surrounding the matter is that too many Americans apparently don't see a problem. Ifill notes that "no one in the upper command structure or cabinet of the Bush administration has been criminally or civilly punished ...," Ifill writes. "This is what impunity looks like," she adds.

    Ifill continues:

    The line on torture, on detainee treatment, on disclosures to Congress and the public, has never been reset. As Bush and Yoo [John Yoo, former attorney in the Bush administration, who wrote memoranda, which have been widely criticized for offering shoddy legal analysis, supporting the use of torture in interrogations] chat with Oprah and appear on talk shows touting their books, and waterboarding becomes the stuff of late-night jokes, Americans may no longer even know or care what constitutes illegal conduct during war.

    Jon Stewart condemns those who call Bush a war criminal as equivalent to those who compare Obama to Hitler, without recognizing the critical difference between the two. Responsible and experienced lawyers believe - based on fact and standards set out in the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture and our own domestic anti-torture statute - that former President Bush may in fact be a war criminal. Likening President Obama to Hitler, on the other hand, is ugly, irresponsible name-calling.

    Ifill also notes an opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Al-Kidd v. Ashcroft, which allowed a legal action accusing former Attorney General John Ashcroft of implementing a policy of mass incarceration after the Sept. 11 attacks of American Muslims that resulted in an illegal arrest and detention to proceed. "There's little disagreement among court watchers," Ifill writes, "that the Supreme Court took this case for the same reason it hears most of the other petitions from the 9th Circuit: to reverse the decisions of that more moderate appeals court. Once again, illegal conduct has taken place, and yet those who gave the order may avoid responsibility."

    [image via Marion Doss

  • October 25, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Sherrilyn Ifill, Professor of Law, University of Maryland School of Law
    Last week, most of the mainstream media seemed anxious to move on from the story of Virginia Thomas' bizarre early morning phone call to the office of Professor Anita Hill, in which she invited Hill to apologize to Thomas for "what you did with my husband." But The Washington Post's subsequent, explosive interview with Clarence Thomas' former girlfriend who has corroborated much of Anita Hill's 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, has laid to rest the idea that this story is over. And indeed this episode is deserving of more attention. It's important because there are so many people who have no real memory of the Thomas confirmation hearings, or why they were so important. In their attempt to get past addressing Mrs. Thomas' bewildering conduct, some media outlets had dismissed the Thomas hearings as a mere "he said/she said" exchange of accusations. In fact, the Thomas hearings - both before and after the statements raised by Anita Hill were made public - constituted an important watershed moment in confirmation hearings, in our understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace, and even in our racial discourse. The temptation by the media to treat this as a non-story or to minimize its significance should be resisted.

    And in fact that's part of the story. Perhaps in part because the Thomas hearings were so painful, so ugly, so disturbing, Justice Thomas is often given a pass by the press. Some of his most inflammatory decisions on the Court - often in concurrence or dissent - are rarely remarked on by Supreme Court writers and bloggers. As I've suggested, even the problematic nature of some of Mrs. Thomas' political activities have been soft-pedaled by court watchers. But we should not soft-pedal history. These were the hearings at which Thomas assured the Committee that once confirmed he would hold no allegiance to the conservative views he'd advanced as a conservative darling and former member of the Reagan Administration. Long before Chief Justice John Roberts promoted the image of the "umpire" judge who just "calls balls and strikes," Thomas introduced us to another empty sports metaphor - promising that he would "strip down like a runner" and shed his earlier ideological views to be an impartial justice. Thomas also sought to reassure the Judiciary Committee and the public, that despite his earlier harsh words about civil rights leaders, and his own less than stellar stewardship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), that he felt empathy (yes, empathy) for those less fortunate. He insisted that when from his office he could see a bus of prisoners in Washington, D.C., he felt, "there but for the grace of God, go I."

    But it was the hearings after Anita Hill's statements came to light that truly riveted the nation. Hill had worked for Thomas at the EEOC. Both were conservatives. Thomas had been serving on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for little over a year when he was tapped by President George H.W. Bush who implausibly called the unremarkable Thomas, the "best candidate" for the job.