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2013 has been particularly eventful for those of us working to protect civil rights. LDF has been aggressively involved in safeguarding all Americans' civil rights -- in particular -- the right to vote. Read below for a look back on this historic year.
Protecting the right to vote in the wake of Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder
In Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4(b) of the Act identified those states and localities (located mostly in the South) that were prevented from making voting changes that might have a negative effect on minority voters until they received approval from a federal authority (usually the Dept. of Justice). Under section 5 of the Act, Congress explicitly required these jurisdictions to obtain permission before implementing these voting laws because of the longstanding and ongoing nature of racial discrimination in voting in those areas. LDF represented Black community leaders from Shelby County, Alabama in the Supreme Court. We fought to keep this protection in place, and presented evidence showing discriminatory voting practices in Shelby County from as recently as 2008. Without the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states to report all voting changes to the Dept. of Justice, you now become our eyes and ears. We need you to collect your stories about such voting changes in your community and email us about them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact other local and national civil rights groups, like the ACLU, NAACP, or Lawyers’ Committee, or call the Election Protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE. We are all in this fight together. We also are harnessing our collective outrage and pointing it towards Congress, which can and must fix the Supreme Court’s ruling. And we need your help to make Congress act.
We continue to argue for a new, fair sentencing hearing for our client, Duane Buck, who has been sentenced to death in Harris County, Texas, based on clear racial discrimination during his sentencing hearing. This November, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Duane Buck’s appeal and failed to recognize that his death sentence is the unconstitutional product of racial discrimination. Three judges on the court noted that, ‘[t]he record in this case reveals a chronicle of inadequate representation at every stage of the proceedings, the integrity of which is further called into question by the admission of racist and inflammatory testimony from an expert witness at the punishment stage.’
We will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the important due process and equal protection issues at stake in Mr. Buck’s case, and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will intervene to right this unequivocal wrong. We've also started a photo campaign in which hundreds of people from around the world have spoken out on behalf of a new, fair sentencing hearing.
Expanding Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reforms
This fall, Vincent Southerland argued in the Sixth Circuit that crack cocaine sentencing reforms should be applied to everyone equally, regardless of sentencing date. In December, a sharply divided Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the unfair, unjustified, and racially discriminatory crack cocaine/powder cocaine sentencing ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, does not apply to thousands of individuals who are currently incarcerated pursuant to sentences imposed under the discredited 100-to-1 regime. Seven judges concluded that the FSA should apply to those serving sentences under the 100-to-1 federal sentencing structure, and ten judges declared that it should not.
While we commend President Obama's recent decision to commute the sentences of eight nonviolent drug offenders, we will continue to press the retroactivity issue in court.
Working to end the school-to-prison pipeline
In a letter sent to LDF, the U.S. Department of Education has confirmed it will investigate a complaint that we and Texas Appleseed filed which challenges the “disparate impact” that Bryan school district’s practice of issuing criminal citations for minor misbehavior has on African-American students, who are ticketed at four times the rate of their peers.
African-American students comprised only 21% of the Bryan district’s student population in 2011-12, but received 53% of all tickets issued last year for Disruption of Class and 51% for Disorderly Conduct-Language (profanity). While the Texas lawmakers passed legislation this spring ending school-based ticketing in most cases, school districts can still file formal complaints and send students to court for the same types of minor misbehavior.
Safeguarding Affirmative Action
This year, the Supreme Court ruled in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, endorsing the benefits of student-body diversity in colleges and universities and allowing the continued use of race-conscious admissions policies. Fisher v. UT Austin is the first federal litigation challenging the use of race in university admissions since the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger which upheld an admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School and broadly affirmed the educational importance of diversity. On August 13, 2012 the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (“LDF”) filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to preserve diversity and opportunity in America’s colleges and universities.
The Fifth Circuit heard oral arguments on November 13, 2013, in Fisher v. University of Texas on remand following the Supreme Court’s decision this past June in which it declined to end the University’s race-conscious admissions plan and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. Josh Civin, Counsel to the Director of Litigation, presented oral argument on behalf of LDF's clients the Black Student Alliance at the University of Texas at Austin (BSA) and Black Ex-Students of Texas, Inc. (BEST).
The hearing focused on the extensive record regarding the race-neutral efforts the University of Texas (UT) employed prior to pairing those approaches with a race-conscious admissions component. And a significant portion of the argument also addressed the relevance of UT’s history and experience in developing its policy. Judge Patrick Higginbotham, who authored a 2010 Court of Appeals opinion that upheld the constitutionality of UT’s admission plan, noted the danger of stereotypes that race-conscious holistic review is designed to address.
Confronting Employment Discrimination
On Monday, December 9, 2013, a federal district court approved a $7.5 million settlement of a national class action lawsuit, which alleged that Wet Seal had a policy of denying equal pay and promotion opportunities and firing African-American store management employees, clearing the way for implementation of the injunctive relief and payments to the class of current and former black managers.
In its order approving the settlement, the court recognized that the settlement is a fair and just result for the class.
As part of the settlement Wet Seal has agreed to make numerous changes to address the discrimination charges brought by black store-level managers and to improve fairness and opportunity for current and future African American Managers. Wet Seal also agreed to pay $7.5 million in monetary relief, including damages to current and former African-American managers of $5.58 million.
Honoring Philanthropists and Civil Rights Leaders
An our annual NEJAD dinner, we honored philanthropists George Soros and David Mills, as well as noted broadcast journalist Soledad O'Brien for their lifelong commitment to civil rights. Filmmaker Charles Nuckolls' film about LDF's work over this past year also premiered at the dinner. In particular, it highlighted our ongoing work to protect all Americans' right to vote. In the film, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King, Rep. John Lewis, and Rep. Joaquin Castro all offered testimony on behalf of LDF's efforts.
Watch a video that celebrates the lives and legacies of civil rights leaders Julius Chambers and James Nabrit. Chambers was LDF's third President and Director-Counsel and Nabritt was a longtime lawyer for LDF.
Protecting Louisianans' Right to Vote
Natasha Korgaonkar, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Political Participation Group presented oral argument before a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that Louisiana has violated the National Voter Registration Act by failing to provide mandatory voter registration opportunities to public assistance clients -- a failure which disproportionately affects indigent voters and voters of color.
The federal statute, signed into law in 1 993 and referred to as the "Motor Voter Act," was passed in order to broaden voter registration opportunities for citizens of color, citizens receiving public assistance benefits, and young voters.
In Scott, et al. v. Schedler, et al., the District Court, in the first ruling of its kind, found that Louisiana's Secretary of State and two state agencies violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which requires certain state public assistance agencies to provide their clients with an opportunity to register to vote. Korgaonkar argued that the District Court's ruling should stand on appeal.