Sherrilyn Ifill

  • 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.

  • October 12, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Sherrilyn Ifill, Professor of Law, University of Maryland School of Law

    There's a story to be told from the intense media focus on last week's Snyder v. Phelps case in the Supreme Court. To be sure, the case - involving a challenge by the father of a slain serviceman to protests conducted by a fringe religious organization at his son's funeral - is an important one in which the Court may provide importance guidance on the reach of the First Amendment. The protests at the military funerals, in which followers of the Westboro Baptist "church," hold up signs that celebrate the death of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Westboro members regard as a punishment for what they believe is U.S. tolerance of gays in the military - are repulsive by almost any sane standard. Given the lurid facts of the case, and the tension between our sympathy for Alfred Snyder and our traditional robust protection of even repulsive speech under the First Amendment, it's perhaps not surprising that almost every major news outlet and Supreme Court blog reported on last Thursday's oral argument.

    But it's telling that on the same day Snyder was argued, the Court also heard oral argument in Connick v. Thompson - a case with considerably more concrete implications for the lives of thousands of criminal defendants. In Connick, the Court will decide whether a man who was convicted of capital murder and held in solitary confinement on death row for 14 years can hold a prosecutor's office civilly liable for violating his constitutional rights by withholding exculpatory evidence from defense counsel and failing to train prosecutors in their obligation to furnish this information to defense counsel. The obligation of prosecutors to turn over such evidence to defense counsel was first established by the Supreme Court in 1963. But the New Orleans district attorney's office argues in Connick that it cannot be held liable for a single incident of violating Brady. Instead, the prosecutor argues that they can only be held liable if it is demonstrated that they engaged in a pattern of withholding such evidence. In other words, only if we repeatedly violated the Constitution can we be compelled to pay for allowing an innocent man to be imprisoned and almost executed.

    With the exception of an article I wrote for The Root, and an in-depth treatment by John Hollway in SLATE, (Hollway's book on the Thompson case has just been released) the oral argument in Connick escaped media and Supreme Court blog attention. And this is its own story. Connick (like last year's Pottawattamie, IA v. McGhee case) is a case that peels back the cover on an aspect of the criminal justice system that is too little examined in the mainstream media, and is unfortunately too well-known to many African Americans. The willingness of some prosecutors to withhold evidence that would likely exculpate criminal defendants, or as in the Pottawattamie case, to deliberately fabricate evidence to frame criminal suspects is a reality of our criminal justice system. The fact that these instances are rare compared to the thousands of cases in which prosecutors act ethically, makes them no less corrosive of public confidence in our justice system. That the victims of this kind of misconduct are often African Americans adds yet another layer of ugliness that further complicates the public response. Unfortunately, it may also explain why these stories - even when they make it to the Supreme Court - get so little attention. When the victims are prominent and white - as in the case of the Duke lacrosse team members accused of rape - prosecutorial misconduct makes an intense, but still too-brief appearance on the front pages of our newspapers.