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Samuel L. Jackson asks, "What Would Your World Look Like Without LDF?"
Deputy Director of Litigation
As the Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), Ryan works to empower communities of color by facilitating full, equal, and active participation in the political process, fighting for better educational, employment, and housing opportunities, and advocating for a fair criminal justice system. To that end, Ryan assists the Litigation Director in overseeing all aspects of LDF’s litigation.
At LDF, Ryan has litigated some of the most important civil rights cases of our time.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act
Ryan twice defended the constitutionality of a core provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, widely regarded as one of our nation’s greatest pieces of civil rights legislation, before the United States Supreme Court. In the most recent challenge, Ryan represented Black community leaders in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, a devastating case in which the United States Supreme Court struck as unconstitutional Section 4(b), the coverage provision of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court’s decision ultimately rendered the Section 5 “preclearance provision” inoperable.
Prior to the Shelby County case, Ryan was a member of LDF’s litigation team in 2009 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder (MUD) that successfully defended against a constitutional challenge to Section 5 before the Supreme Court. During the 2006 Congressional reauthorization of Section 5, Ryan coordinated LDF’s legislative strategy, its contributions to building the Congressional record, and the organization’s public education efforts in numerous community, academic, and media settings.
Under Section 5, Ryan successfully represented Black voters in the following recent high-profile cases:
- Florida v. Holder, in which a three-judge federal court rejected Florida’s attempt to drastically reduce the early voting period for the 2012 Presidential election, an important channel through which Black people voted in record numbers in the 2008 Presidential election;
- South Carolina v. Holder, in which a three-judge federal court rejected South Carolina’s request to implement its discriminatory photo identification law for the 2012 Presidential election; and,
- Texas v. Holder, in which a three-judge federal court rejected Texas’s attempt to implement a discriminatory government-issued photo identification measure in 2012, recognizing it as the most discriminatory photo ID measure in the country.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act
Within days of the Shelby County decision, Texas implemented the strictest photo ID law in the country. Ryan led LDF’s successful legal challenge under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to Texas’s photo ID law in United States v. Texas, arguing during a two-week federal trial that the law, which allowed for the use of concealed hand gun licenses but not student IDs, is racially discriminatory and imposes substantial and unjustified burdens on voters of color in Texas.
In September 2014, the district court found that Texas’s photo ID law, which prevented more than 600,000 registered voters from voting, is intentionally racially discriminatory, violates the Voting Rights Act, and is an unconstitutional poll tax.
Ryan also successfully led LDF’s challenge to Fayette County, Georgia’s discriminatory at-large method of electing members to its county commission and school board, under which no Black candidate had ever been elected. As a remedy for the Voting Rights Act violation it found, the district court in Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, et al., v. Fayette County Board of Commissioners required Fayette County to conduct its elections under a district-based voting plan. In the November 2014 election, under the new plan, Fayette County voters both led the state of Georgia in voter turnout and made history by electing the first-ever Black woman to serve on the county commission.
Ryan also represented Black voters in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana in Williams v. McKeithen, a Section 2 challenge to the Parish’s at-large method of electing judges to the state court of appeals. In response to the Williams litigation, Louisiana created a new district that provided that Parish’s Black community, for the first time in history, with an opportunity to elect a candidate of its choice.
Freeing the Vote for People with Felony Convictions
Ryan has also been a pioneer in challenging state laws that disproportionately deny voting rights to people of color with felony convictions, widely recognized as the next frontier for the expansion of voting rights. In one of those cases, Farrakhan v. Gregoire, Ryan successfully challenged Washington’s law that denied the vote to people with felony convictions.
In the first ruling of its kind, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down Washington's law, finding that it shifted racial discrimination from the criminal justice system into the political process, thereby denying the right to vote to nearly 25 percent of all Black men in the state. Ryan subsequently argued the case before an 11-member panel of the Ninth Circuit, which ultimately reversed the historic ruling.
Ryan also litigated Little v. LATFOR, a case that ensured that that incarcerated people of color in New York State are properly counted in their home communities during the 2010 and future redistricting processes, rather than in the prison communities where they are incarcerated. This practice, known as “prison-based gerrymandering,” artificially inflates the population count—and thus, the political influence—of the districts where prisons and jails are located. At the same time, this practice reduces the political power of everyone else. The viability of our communities, integrity of our democracy and basic principles of equality suffer as a result.
The National Voter Registration Act
Ryan also supervises LDF’s litigation and advocacy efforts to ensure state compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which requires states to provide voter registration services to impoverished constituents who apply for benefits at state public assistance agencies.
Ryan and his team recently secured the first victory under the NVRA following a trial in Scott v. Schedler, where a federal court found that Louisiana violated the law by failing to offer an opportunity to register to vote to all applicants and recipients of food stamps, TANF, Medicaid, and WIC. In particular, the court found that despite consistently high numbers of participants in Louisiana’s food stamp and Medicaid programs, voter registration applications originating in these agencies had dropped nearly 90 percent in the last twenty years. Nationwide, as of October 2011, more than one million low-income people in five different states have registered to vote as a result of proper NVRA enforcement.
Appearances, Media, and Publications
A passionate advocate, Ryan speaks and writes regularly on issues concerning race, law, civil rights, and democracy.
He also has been interviewed by numerous media outlets, including MSNBC’s The Reid Report here , Hardball with Chris Matthews here and here, Politics Nation with Reverend Al Sharpton, Up with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show here and here, CNN Newsroom with Suzanne Malveaux, Live with Richard Lui, The Tavis Smiley Show, Fox News, National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, and the New York Times.
Ryan has offered testimony, and has written the following law review articles:
- The Past as Prologue: Defending Democracy Against Voter Suppression Tactics on the Eve of the 2012 Elections, 64 Rutgers L. Rev. 1019 (2012);
- Disregarding the Results: Examining the Ninth Circuit’s Heightened Section 2 “Intentional Discrimination” Standard in Farrakhan v. Gregoire, 111 Colum. L. Rev. Sidebar 51 (2011); and,
- The Dim Side of the Bright Line: Minority Voting Opportunity After Bartlett v. Strickland, 45 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. (2010)
In 2012, LDF authored a leading report, Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America, which explores the contemporary assault on voting rights across the nation. Ryan brought international attention to this important issue when he testified at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland in 2012.
Prior to joining LDF, Ryan was a litigation associate in the New York office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, LLP, and was a recipient of the prestigious LDF/Fried Frank Fellowship. At Fried, Frank, Ryan represented clients in a variety of complex commercial and civil rights matters before federal courts.
Ryan received his J.D. from the University of Colorado School of Law and B.A. in American History and Political Science cum laude from Colorado College, where he was nominated for the Rhodes Scholarship and earned academic and athletic All-American honors as a football player.