Beyond a Broken Beltway: State Courts, Legislatures and Cities as Venues for Progressive Change

State courts, legislatures and municipal governments are becoming increasingly important forums for achieving progressive change as obstruction in Congress and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority make action difficult at the federal level. State courts play a vital role shaping the law on voting rights, criminal justice, environmental and human rights issues, and often have the last word on who votes and wins elections, goes to jail or faces the death penalty, drinks clean water and can get married. State legislatures and municipal governments also are leading the way in promoting economic equality via increases in the minimum wage and other innovative approaches. But the same forces blocking progress at the federal level also pose threats at the state and local level. Almost all state court judges stand for election, and after Citizens United, waves of special interest money have flooded into those elections, threatening the fairness and impartiality of state courts. The American Legislative Exchange Council controls a lavishly funded network of state legislators dedicated to turning back the clock at the state and local level. This panel examined opportunities and challenges presented by these efforts to achieve progress beyond the Beltway and how progressives can play an active role in the struggle.


Dennis Herrera, City Attorney, San Francisco
Scott Lemieux, Professor of Political Science, The College of St. Rose
Nick Rathod, Executive Director, American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE)
Thomas A. Saenz, President and General Counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)
Joanna Shepherd, Associate Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law
Jo-Ann Wallace, President and CEO, National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA)
Brittny Saunders, Deputy Counsel to the Mayor, City of New York