• 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.”

  • February 13, 2014

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In reality most likely did not expect landmark reform of the filibuster to usher in halcyon days of bipartisanship over executive branch nominations in the Senate. Though that reform did help U.S. Senators overcome partisan-led obstruction of some of President Obama’s judicial nominations, such as those to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, it was hardly going to radically change the way the current Senate functions.

    There remain some executive branch positions that conservatives in the Senate see no urgency in filling, such as a leader for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. And so President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile, a highly regarded attorney especially in the civil rights field, was almost inevitable to draw some kind of opposition. Primarily some Senate Republicans and conservative pundits have sought to scuttle Adegbile’s nomination by disparaging some of his work at the venerable civil rights organization, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF). Specifically some opponents of Adegbile’s nomination argue he is unfit to serve because of LDF’s representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted killer facing a death sentence.

    But Adegbile’s nomination is advancing – the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote earlier this month moved his nomination to the Senate floor – and doing so because of widespread and bipartisan pushback from legal professionals and advocates.

    For example a letter from Supreme Court Bar attorneys of differing political persuasions exposed as wobbly the opponents’ arguments against Adegbile’s nomination. The group’s letter also highlighted the importance of ensuring constitutional due process in capital punishment cases. (Some Missouri state attorneys prosecuting death penalty cases would do well to read the letter for that reason alone.)

    The Supreme Court Bar’s lawyers noted that all the “federal courts reviewing Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case ruled, repeatedly and unanimously, that he was entitled to a new death sentencing hearing free of constitutional error.” Subsequently Abu-Jamal was resentenced to life in prison without chance for parole.

    But Adegbile’s leadership at LDF, where he also defended before the Supreme Court the Voting Rights Act, should not disqualify him from serving an important leadership role in the DOJ, the Supreme Court lawyers noted. “It is well-established that even the most unpopular defendant requires such representation, particularly when he or she is facing capital punishment.”

  • February 26, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Ryan P. Haygood, Director of LDF’s Political Participation Group, and part of LDF’s litigation team in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. LDF Special Counsel Debo P. Adegbile will present oral argument on behalf of defendant-intervenors in this case, including LDF’s clients, five Black ministers and Councilman Ernest Montgomery. In 2006, the City of Calera, which lies within Shelby County, enacted a discriminatory redistricting plan that was rejected by the Department of Justice under Section 5, leading to the loss of the city’s sole Black councilman, Mr. Montgomery.  Because of Section 5, however, the Department of Justice required Calera to redraw its electoral boundaries in a nondiscriminatory manner and conduct another election in which Mr. Montgomery regained his seat. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on Shelby County v. Holder.

    The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, one of the most important voting rights cases of our generation. 

    In the case, Shelby County seeks to tear out the heart of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5. The Voting Rights Act is widely regarded as the most successful piece of civil rights legislation -- if not any legislation -- ever passed. It is for this reason that the Supreme Court, through an unbroken line of cases, has four times over four decades upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.

    At oral argument, the Court will focus on two key questions: (1) whether voting discrimination persists to a degree that Section 5 is still needed; and, (2) whether that discrimination remains concentrated in the places covered by Section 5.

    The answer to both queries is yes for two reasons.

    First, in reauthorizing Section 5 in 2006, Congress identified the areas of the country with the worst histories of voting discrimination -- those places where persistent and adaptive discrimination has continued from the past through to the present and, which has proven particularly difficult to dislodge over time through case-by-case litigation. 

    During the 2006 reauthorization review, Congress assembled a virtually unprecedented legislative record that closely examined the evidence to determine whether Section 5 is still needed. This analysis was careful, detailed, and included a wide range of views.  Congress received more testimony and information about the voting experience, both in and outside the places covered by Section 5, than it had during any of the previous reauthorizations. Over 10 months in 2005-2006, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a combined 21 hearings, received testimony from more than 90 witnesses—including state and federal officials, litigators, scholars, and private citizens—both for and against reauthorization, and compiled a 15,000 page record.  Representative James Sensenbrenner, then-Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, described the record as “one of the most extensive considerations of any piece of legislation that the United States Congress has dealt with in the 27 ½ years” that he had served in Congress.


  • August 17, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Earlier in the week the rightwing push for new restrictions on voting received support of a Pennsylvania state court judge, who failed to see how the state’s strict voter ID law could keep people from the polls. But the effort in Florida to curtail voting opportunities, also led by conservative policymakers, found resistance late yesterday from a federal court in D.C. that concluded the state’s measure to limit earlier voting opportunities disproportionally targeted African-Americans.

    Like a string of other statehouses, mostly controlled by Republicans, Florida lawmakers implemented an overhaul of voting procedures in the state, which included rigid voter ID requirements, an attempt to hamper voter registration drives and limitations on early voting opportunities. Fla. Gov. Rick Scott has also urged county officials to purge voter rolls. The Department of Justice and several civil liberties groups have challenged the efforts to restrict voting, and five counties in Florida must get pre-clearance from the DOJ or a federal court before making changes to voting procedures. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits several states and localities with histories of voter discrimination from altering voting procedures without federal pre-clearance.

    The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled late Thursday that curtailing early voting opportunities in Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties would have a discriminatory impact on black voters.

    The three-judge panel concluded, in part, that the “state has failed to satisfy its burden of proving that those changes will not have a retrogressive effect on minority voters.” The panel added that restricting early-voting is “analogous to closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts.”  

    Ryan P. Haygood, director of the Political Participation Group at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the group’s challenging Florida’s restrictions on voting said in a statement regarding the litigation that implementation of the measures “would be devastating for Black and other minority voters in the state.”

  • April 19, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Christina Swarns, LDF Director of the Criminal Justice Practice, and Eva Paterson, Equal Justice Society President and Co-Founder. Paterson is also a member of the Bay Area Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors.

    Few cases involving the intersection of race, criminal law, and procedure have had the reach and impact of McCleskey v. Kemp, a United States Supreme Court decision decided 25 years ago, on April 22, 1987. This decision set the stage for more than 20 years of dramatically increasing racial disparities within the criminal justice system.

    In McCleskey, the Supreme Court declared that a criminal justice system that treats Blacks worse than whites is “inevitable” and that the Constitution is only violated by instances of intentional racial discrimination by individual actors in specific cases. 

    Specifically, the Court refused to set aside the death sentence of Warren McCleskey, an African American man who was sentenced to death in Georgia for the killing of a white person, despite the fact that statistical evidence demonstrated that in Georgia capital cases, African Americans were more likely to receive a death sentence than any other defendants, and that African American defendants who killed white victims were the most likely to be sentenced to death.

    The implications of the McCleskey decision are profound. Because of McCleskey, there is no remedy for – and, indeed, no constitutional problem with – the fact that Blacks are disproportionately stopped, searched, arrested, held on bail, charged with serious crimes (including death-eligible offenses), denied plea bargains, convicted, and sentenced to prison or execution. 

    There is no constitutional basis for challenging the fact that one in three African American males will enter state or federal prison at some point in his lifetime; and that although African Americans make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they amount to 44 percent of sentenced inmates – the largest group behind bars.