As 2022 comes to a close and we march forward into 2023, we look back on the challenges and triumphs of the past 12 months. 2022 was a year of transformation for LDF as we welcomed a new President and Director-Counsel, Janai S. Nelson whose strategic vision and leadership has already yielded several successes.
2022 saw LDF return to the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time since 2016 when LDF Senior Counsel Deuel Ross delivered oral arguments in Merrill v. Milligan, a case challenging Alabama’s redistricting maps that deny Black residents an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. LDF remains a leading voice in efforts to protect and defend truth, the accurate teaching of American history, and the right for students and teachers to have their identities recognized in the classroom. The future of race-conscious admissions once again came before the Supreme Court this year. LDF represented 25 Harvard student and alumni groups in their efforts to defend holistic admissions programs. Protecting affirmative action and advancing educational equity has always been core to LDF’s mission, and we continue to lead that fight today. 2022 also marked a return to in-person events, including the 34th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner, and our annual sojourn to Selma, Alabama.
In the face of mounting threats to our democracy and attacks on truth, LDF remains steadfast in our mission working in service of Black communities and worked tirelessly to advance racial justice and build an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
On October 4, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the consequential redistricting case Merrill v. Milligan. The case was argued by LDF Senior Counsel Deuel Ross and challenges Alabama’s redistricting maps that deny Black residents an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of choice. The case was brought on behalf of Evan Milligan, Khadidah Stone, Letetia Jackson, Shalela Dowdy, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP. LDF is joined by co-counsel American Civil Liberties Union; ACLU of Alabama; Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher & Goldfarb; and Hogan Lovells LLP. Merrill v. Milligan is the first case LDF argued before the Court since Buck v. Davis in 2016.
For decades, Alabama has used discriminatory redistricting policies that dilute the voting power of Black Alabamians and prevent them from electing candidates of their choice. The maps drawn for the 2021 redistricting cycle are part of the “sordid record” of Alabama’s white majority using racial discrimination to retain power. LDF has long been involved in advocating for voting rights in Alabama during the redistricting process and beyond. In fact, during the most recent redistricting cycle, LDF became involved early on to try to ensure that the state’s maps would accurately represent Alabama’s growing Black community.
Merrill v. Milligan is the most important redistricting case to come before the Supreme Court in recent history. The Court’s decision will have major implications for the future of voting rights, and redistricting. The ruling could roll back critical, long-standing protections for communities of color in redistricting and voting.
The decision in Merrill v. Milligan could make it extremely difficult for communities of color everywhere to challenge redistricting maps that discriminate on the basis of race and deny voters of color the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. We’ve compiled answers to frequently asked questions about the consequential redistricting case and its impact.
On Oct. 4, 2022, Legal Defense Fund (LDF) Senior Counsel Deuel Ross presented oral argument in the redistricting case Merrill v. Milligan, the organization’s first case before the U.S. Supreme Court since 2016. With LDF back before the Court in Merrill v. Milligan, we take a closer look at the case’s details and potential ramifications, as well as provide on-the-ground insights as to how the LDF team’s day unfolded.
Prohibiting racial considerations in the redistricting process would have a devastating impact on Black representation and political power. We outline what’s at stake in Merrill v. Milligan.
LDF Policy Counsel Jared Evans and Redistricting Counsel Michael Pernick reflect on the unique and impactful nature of this redistricting cycle.
LDF has been closely monitoring the redistricting process in key states to ensure that maps are drawn fairly and do not disenfranchise Black voters. LDF has filed lawsuits in several states challenging discriminatory maps.
In a big win for voting rights, the New York State Senate voted to approve the NYVRA on May 31, 2022, the Assembly passed the NYVRA on June 2, 2022, and Governor Hochul signed the bill into law on June 20, 2022.
This landmark victory for Black voters was the product of dedicated advocacy by civil and voting rights organizations. LDF, the New York Voting Rights Consortium (Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, LatinoJustice, PRLDEF, LDF) NYCLU, and nearly 70 additional organizations together representing hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers worked to ensure that all New Yorkers have equal access to the ballot.
For more than a decade, Prepared to Vote (PTV) has prepared voters for elections by engaging volunteers on Election Day. Prepared to Vote equips voters with information needed to protect voting rights and support Black political participation. Voting Rights Defender (VRD) project was launched in advance of the 2020 election to ensure voting suppression practices designed to disenfranchise Black voters could be quickly identified and addressed. We monitor, track, and respond to voter suppression efforts in our targeted jurisdiction to protect the right to vote.
This year, LDF staff and volunteers traveled to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, and Alabama to provide on-the-ground support and poll monitoring. LDF and local partners fielded reports of voter suppression, intimidation, and other voter concerns to ensure all voters could cast their ballots. Our election protection work is not confined to Election Day. LDF staff work year-round to train volunteers across the country and ensure access to the ballot box.
The current political landscape has left some individuals, especially young people and people of color, feeling exhausted, disenchanted, and frustrated. But there in spite of this frustration, there are s0 many reasons why it’s critical that you vote in every election, every year.
This election season, we documented a day in the life of those working on the front lines in Louisiana to ensure that all eligible voters can cast their ballots and make their voices heard.
LDF is a leading voice in the decades-long struggle for equitable college admissions policies, from its early efforts to desegregate colleges and universities throughout the Jim Crow South to its ongoing advocacy for the continued use of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education.
On October 31, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the cases Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina (UNC). SFFA, an organization created by Edward Blum, filed the lawsuits in 2014 as part of a relentless crusade to overturn 40+ years of precedent and eliminate the consideration of race in college admissions. Blum is also responsible for the litigation in Shelby County v. Holder.
When LDF successfully litigated Brown v. Board of Education 68 years ago, the plaintiffs and their lawyers, including LDF founder and eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, were not fighting for, nor did the Supreme Court envision, SFFA’s version of a “colorblind” Fourteenth Amendment that ignores the persistent reality of racial inequalities. LDF and the original Brown plaintiffs sought to uproot the subordination of Black people and secure equal citizenship for Black Americans by ending this country’s racial caste system. That is the vision that the Supreme Court affirmed in Brown. The two cases challenging race-conscious admissions before the Supreme Court, SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC, pose a threat to these ideals and decades of progress. Striking down race-conscious admissions would further cement racial inequalities in our education system, and severely decrease diversity on college campuses.
The Court’s decision in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC may have major implications for the future of race-conscious admissions policies and educational equity. Outlawing the consideration of race in college admissions would only further cement racial inequality and segregation in our country.
LDF represents twenty-six Harvard student and alumni organizations, comprised of thousands of Asian American, Black, Latino, Native American, and white students and alumni, in their quest to protect the university’s holistic admissions process. The groups joined together to submit amicus briefs condemning a lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) in 2014 that seeks to eliminate the consideration of race in Harvard’s admissions, threatening diversity at the college. SFFA v. Harvard is the first challenge to a race-conscious admissions policy involving a private college to reach the Supreme Court.
In July 2022, LDF filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court of the United States in SFFA v. University of North Carolina (UNC) on behalf of LDF and the NAACP in support of UNC’s race-conscious admissions process. UNC is one of the country’s oldest taxpayer-funded, public universities and, until the mid-20th century, had a policy of denying admission to Black applicants and other people of color because of their race. UNC’s race-conscious admissions policy is especially necessary because, in the state’s primary and secondary schools, qualified Black students are systemically denied fair opportunity to amass the traditional credentials that universities prioritize, such as high grade point averages and standardized test scores, that would give them a competitive advantage in UNC’s admissions process.
LDF compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions about the cases, their impact, and affirmative action more broadly. Challenges to affirmative action have been propelled by misinformation and misrepresentations of affirmative action and its impact. Race-conscious admissions are critical for advancing racial justice and educational equity.
Students and alumni who are part of organizations represented by LDF in the Harvard case are urging the court to reaffirm over 40 years of precedent establishing that it’s legally permissible to consider race, among a variety of factors, in the higher education admissions process. At an October 30, 2022 Affirm Diversity gathering, students spoke to LDF and shared why ensuring diversity in education and beyond is so important to them, especially against the backdrop of the pending Supreme Court decisions.
On August 18, 2022, a group of higher education students and educators filed a lawsuit challenging Florida’s HB 7 — also known as the Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees (“Stop W.O.K.E.”) Act — a classroom censorship bill which severely restricts Florida educators and students from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender in higher education classrooms. Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors is the first lawsuit filed by LDF challenging anti-truth efforts and legislation.
The first installment of LDF’s original content series examines the attacks on ‘Critical Race Theory’ and efforts to ban books as the latest tactics to halt racial justice.
The third installment explains why truthful, inclusive education benefits all students and how to make it happen.
The word “woke” has been a signal urging Black people to be aware of the systems that harm and otherwise put us at a disadvantage since the 1920s. Now, it has been co-opted and maligned. Our latest Original Content piece explores how the term “woke” has been manipulated and maligned to hold back racial justice progress.
LDF has compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions about Critical Race Theory. Learn more about CRT, laws banning racial justice discourse, and how these fit into a larger effort to suppress the voices, history, and political participation of Black Americans.
LDF is at the forefront of the fight to ensure that America lives up to the ideals of justice and equality for all. The right to free expression and the right to vote are cornerstones of our democracy. LDF and coalition partners are fighting back to protect truth.
The commonplace, tranquil act of falling asleep in one’s own home should never end in tragedy — but it did for Breonna Taylor and Amir Locke, and so many other individuals who have been killed or injured during no-knock raids. No-knock warrants have been executed by police officers with horrifying consequences for decades. In the absence of no-knock warrant bans or police accountability, there is only one damning question. How many more people will police kill before things change?
Law enforcement officers brutalize and criminalize children, including kindergarteners, teenagers, and all ages in between. Some children have even been attacked by law enforcement, arrested, charged, and brought in front of a judge for normal childhood behavior. These incidents illustrate the punitive and barbaric reality youth in the United States face — one in which law enforcement officers treat them as criminal suspects, rather than children.
For decades, qualified immunity has protected law enforcement officers and other government officials from being held accountable when they violate people’s constitutional rights. In practice, this often means that, unless there’s a case with nearly identical facts on the record, these officials can violate a person’s rights without being held personally responsible for their actions. LDF’s Qualified Immunity Working Group advocates and litigates civil rights cases in the federal courts of appeals and the United States Supreme Court to limit the doctrine’s reach.
Under the Constitution, people are granted the presumption of innocence and the right to liberty if they have not been convicted of a crime. Pretrial incarceration runs directly counter to these constitutional principles. While money bail and pretrial detention are intended to ensure court appearances and protect public safety, the evidence shows that this system is an ineffective and discriminatory approach.
Current politicized discussions of crime ignore or distort crime data to intensify public fear, heighten racial tension, and undermine criminal justice reforms that promote long-term, sustainable public safety. TMI researchers examine three false narratives to explain the 2020 nationwide increase in homicides: the expansion of bail reform, practices of progressive prosecutors, and attempts to defund the police. Our analysis reveals that the empirical data contradicts these narratives and suggests that pandemic induced instability and inequality are the primary drivers of recent increases in homicides.
The Thurgood Marshall Institute and LDF re-launched the National Police Funding Database, expanding its geographic scope and grants coverage to cover 250+ law enforcement agencies. The database allows users to easily access information about federal grant money, military equipment transfers, and resources distributed to police departments in cities and counties across the country, as well as settlements and misconduct complaints. It also provides racial and ethnic demographic information for every included city and county.
In the landmark 1972 case, Furman v. Georgia, LDF won the country’s first and only nationwide halt to executions when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in a memorable 5-4 decision. The Furman v. Georgia ruling held that the death penalty violated the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment. It forced states to rethink their laws going forward to ensure that the death penalty would not be administered in a discriminatory manner. Unfortunately, this decision proved to be only temporary as Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reinstated the death penalty. LDF has litigated several consequential death penalty cases before the Supreme Court and lower courts. Read about them here.
In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Furman v. Georgia, LDF calls on the Biden administration to use its executive powers to commute the sentences on all individuals currently on death row and issue a permanent moratorium on the federal death penalty.
Whether administered by federal or state government, the death penalty is infected with fundamental flaws, including persistent racial discrimination, and human error. Currently, 27 states, the federal government, and the U.S. Military still have the death penalty. There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Since 1973, at least 189 people wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated. 100 of the death row exonerees are Black.
Death Row USA includes data on death row populations by state, executions carried out, statistics on race and gender, current death penalty cases, and more in states with the death penalty.
As of 2022, there are 2,436 people on death row. One out of five people living in the U.S. are people of color. But 55% of people on federal death row are Black, Latino, Asian or Native.
Since the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage in 1865, its exception clause has enabled slavery to persist for generations through the prison labor system. The ballot initiatives facing voters in 2022 reflect the continued growth of a promising state-level trend of closing this Thirteenth Amendment loophole.
In each step of the process, racial bias seeps into decisions made by prosecutors, jurors, and judges — decisions that all profoundly impact a person’s life. This bias undermines the very fabric and premise of our democracy and, unless it is eliminated, no trial will ever be impartial.
At the core of racial justice and freedom from oppression is the right to dignity and bodily autonomy. This year, LDF continued its legacy of advocating for the freedom to control one’s own body and to live a life free from state-erected barriers to the pursuit of happiness. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn decades of precedent enshrining the right to abortion, LDF continued its work to support organizations deeply involved with reproductive justice and to call attention to the specific barriers Black individuals face. We also proudly continued to stand with and support LGBT+ communities in our ongoing work to ensure that everyone has the right to live a life filled with dignity and free from discrimination.
LDF has long recognized that reproductive rights and the right to bodily autonomy are central to racial justice. Access to abortion care has been a fundamental part of reproductive care for Black, Brown, and low-income people throughout the country. Overturning reproductive rights disproportionately harms Black, Brown, and low-income people who are most impacted by systemic inequalities. LDF submitted an amicus brief in Whole Women’s Health v. Austin Reeve Jackson, a case challenging Texas’ unconstitutional abortion law, Senate Bill 8 (S.B. 8). LDF joined an amicus brief with 17 other civil rights organizations in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,
Rampant attacks on reproductive rights culminated in the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that dismantled the constitutional right to seek abortion care. Despite this decision, LDF remains steadfast in efforts to protect and secure reproductive rights
No one deserves to be discriminated against because of their identity. Historically on the forefront of driving our society to reject this kind of discrimination, today LDF continues to leverage our voice and expertise to challenge laws and policies that promote the substandard treatment of any group of people.
Today, there are renewed efforts to silence and censor the stories and lived experiences of Black people, people of color, women, and members of the LBGTQ+ community. We all must work together to fight attacks that affect the different communities with which we belong, and to safeguard the rights of all of us in this multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy.
Pride month is known as a celebration of LGBTQ+ communities and history, but it has roots in Black and Brown trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people’s advocacy against police violence.Today, violence by state and private actors against LGBTQ+ people of color, particularly against trans people of color, grows, as evidenced by the current wave of anti-trans laws, misinformation campaigns, and transphobic and homophobic violence.
On August 19, 2022, LDF filed an amicus brief in the case 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, a U.S. Supreme Court case at the intersection between LGBTQ+ rights and religious beliefs. The Petitioner, who is the founder of the design studio 303 Creative, refuses to provide services for weddings involving same-sex couples. Smith is asking the Court to relitigate questions that it already answered decades ago, and it should be seen as part of the dangerous larger effort now underway to shut LGBTQ+ people out of public spaces more broadly. As LDF’s brief argues, discrimination against same-sex marriage is inextricable from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Public accommodation laws are particularly important for Black members of the LGBTQ+ community who face compounded discrimination in the absence of civil rights laws. 303 Creative v. Elenis runs headlong into the seminal 1968 case Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises litigated by LDF in which the Supreme Court unanimously held that an individual’s religious beliefs do not excuse discrimination.
The Thurgood Marshall Institute’s Justice Above All podcast explores the evolution of, and continued need for, racial justice advocacy. We’ve entered a time where many of the building blocks underpinning our work for racial justice are being questioned or actively undermined. Justice Above All provides an accessible way to help inform the national debate, revive our history, and remember how far we still must go in our quest to realize the ideals for which Thurgood Marshall and the advocates he led fought.
On this episode of Justice Above All, hosted by TMI Senior Fellow and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro, we explore the geography and environment of public housing, and how anti-public housing sentiment has impacted its development.
On this episode of Justice Above All, host Dr. Kesha Moore traces the history of fines and fees and outlines how localities are fining some of their poorest residents as a way to generate revenue for their budgets. Justice Above All is joined by Katurah Topps, LDF Policy Counsel, Emily Harris, Policy Director of the Ella Baker Center, and Cortney Sanders, Senior Manger of State and Policy Analysis at Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
On March 15, 2022, Janai S. Nelson began her tenure as the President and Director-Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund. Ms. Nelson previously served as LDF’s Associate Director-Counsel alongside Sherrilyn Ifill since 2014 where she helped develop and execute LDF’s strategic vision and programs. Now, as LDF’s President and Director-Counsel, her transformative leadership will undoubtedly continue pushing the fight for racial justice forward. She has been the architect of LDF’s innovative pro-truth campaign and litigation, including National Urban League, et al. v. Trump (2020) and Pernell v. Florida Board of Governors(2022). She is a leading voice within the pro-truth movement. Nelson’s tenure has also seen LDF’s return to the U.S. Supreme Court in Merrill v. Milligan.
After nearly 10 years at the helm, Sherrilyn Ifill stepped down as President and Director-Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund in the spring of 2022 after nearly a decade leading the organization through its greatest period of growth and transformation. During Ms. Ifill’s tenure, at critical moments during political and civil rights crises, her singular voice and vision have powerfully influenced our national dialogue. She has elevated and strengthened LDF’s prominence as the country’s leading civil rights law organization and achieved unprecedented growth in the organization’s history.
In April 2022, the United States Senate confirmed the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court in a bipartisan 53-47 vote.
Justice Jackson made history as the first Black woman ever to sit on the nation’s highest court. Justice Jackson follows in the footsteps of former LDF attorney Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge, and LDF founder Thurgood Marshall, the first Black person to ever serve as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.
Prior to her confirmation, LDF released a report evaluating the record of Justice Jackson, in keeping with our longstanding tradition of outlining the background, judicial philosophy, and judicial record of Supreme Court nominees, with a focus on the nominee’s record on civil rights and racial justice issues.
LDF has long been a champion of diversity at all levels of the judiciary. A judiciary that values and upholds equal justice and the protection of civil rights for all makes a difference in the lives of people, and is one of the critical ways we protect and strengthen our democracy. The decisions made by federal judges have long-lasting impacts on individual people’s lives, and our democracy at large. LDF has long relied on a judicial system with fair, impartial, and competent judges in order to fight for the dignity and humanity of Black Americans and other communities of color.
More women of color have been nominated to serve on the federal bench than ever before. About 46 percent of judges nominated by President Biden have been women of color. The list of federal judges nominated includes several former LDF attorneys, including LDF Director of Litigation Natasha Merle, former LDF Assistant Counsel Holly Thomas, and former LDF Senior Counsel Ajmel Quereshi.
The National Equal Justice Awards Dinner, LDF’s signature event, is an opportunity to recognize and honor leaders in law, the arts, business, and philanthropy who have demonstrated a commitment to the promotion of racial justice and equality, and celebrate the tremendous civil rights work accomplished by LDF over the past year. NEJAD was held on May 10, 2022 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
LDF’s inaugural Icon Award was awarded to Stevie Wonder, in recognition of his steadfast work throughout his illustrious career, spanning over half a century, which embodies LDF’s values and demonstrates his commitment to confronting the barriers that face Black Americans and other marginalized communities.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist, professor, and author of The 1619 Project, was recognized with the Spirit of Justice Award, in honor of her unflagging courage and fierce dedication to using truth as power throughout her prolific career.
Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s 7th President and Director-Counsel, was awarded the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of her tremendous contributions to LDF and her tireless commitment to advancing racial justice.
The evening also featured a special video message from former First Lady Michelle Obama, remarks by screen legend Rita Moreno, and performances by the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Every year, LDF staff sojourn to Selma, Alabama to honor the foot soldiers who braved state-sanctioned violence to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and to invigorate our spirits for continuing their brave work to open access to the ballot box. This year marked LDF’s return to an in-person Selma Weekend and march. A LDF-hosted redistricting panel was joined by journalist Errin Haines, Professor Melissa Murray, and Evan Milligan of Alabama Forward and the named plaintiff in Merrill v. Milligan, the Supreme Court case challenging Alabama’s redistricting maps.
Traveling to Selma is a time-honored tradition at the Legal Defense Fund and allows us the opportunity to be on the ground with the communities we dutifully serve. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with grassroots organizations and Selma community organizers always serves as a poignant reminder of our history and why we are called to the work.
Black women have a deep history of contribution to transformative movements in this country, but that work is often overshadowed by the accomplishments of their male contemporaries. Too often, we forget that women were integral to the Selma campaign and the civil rights movement in general. And we forget that without these women’s contributions and sacrifices, the march as we know it — and thus the United States of America as we know it — wouldn’t exist.
LDF is deeply saddened by the loss of Cecilia “Cissy” Suyat Marshall on November 22, 2022. Ms. Marshall was the wife of LDF’s founder and the nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a former staff member, and long-standing LDF board member, and a tireless devotee to the cause of equal justice.