2023

Year in Review

A Year of Transformation

As 2023 comes to a close and we march forward toward 2024, we reflect on the triumphs and challenges of the past year. In a major victory for voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Black Alabama voters in Allen v. Milligan. LDF returned to the U.S. Supreme Court to once again protect the rights of Black voters and fight discriminatory redistricting when LDF Senior Counsel Leah Aden delivered oral argument in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. Though the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to race-conscious admissions in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC, LDF remains a leading voice in efforts to defend diversity and ensure equal opportunity in higher education. Protecting affirmative action and advancing educational equity has always been core to LDF’s mission, and we continue to lead that fight today. LDF has been deeply involved with advocacy against Cop City in Atlanta and has mobilized to protect Black Atlanta residents from militarized policing. LDF continues to spearhead 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.  

In all pillars of our work, LDF defends and advances the full dignity and citizenship of Black people in the United States. As we face ongoing threats to our democracy and attacks on truth, LDF remains steadfast in our work to advance a multiracial democracy where power is shared, dignity is sacred, and thriving is the standard. 

LDF attorneys, co-counsel and plaintiffs descend the Supreme Court steps following oral argument in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP on Oct. 11, 2023. (photo by Allison Shelley for LDF)

Protecting Black Political Power

Voting Rights and Redistricting

Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP

Fighting Discriminatory Redistricting at the Supreme Court

On October 11, 2023, LDF’s Senior Counsel Leah Aden argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, a seminal redistricting case that will determine the fate of South Carolina’s congressional map.  

Ms. Aden presented a powerful argument before the court that showed how South Carolina legislators disproportionately and discriminatorily targeted Black voters for movement outside of Congressional District No. 1, which includes Charleston County. Aden explained why the Court should affirm the federal court’s  finding of “stark racial gerrymandering.”  

Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP was filed on behalf of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and Taiwan Scott, an individual voter and member of the Gullah Geechee community. The case challenged South Carolina’s congressional map as a racial gerrymander designed with a discriminatory purpose under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, the lawsuit charged that Congressional District No. 1 is a racial gerrymander that packs and cracks Black communities, denying them an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.  

The lawsuit also argued that legislators hid behind arbitrary and flimsy justifications for their discrimination when drawing the map. The legislature engineered its map to cut through Black communities and minimize Black South Carolinians’ voting power. As the lawsuit describes, the map shuffles voters into electoral districts based on their race in order to prevent Black voters from impacting more than one congressional election statewide.  

Unfair mapping and gerrymandering weaken community power by denying people of color the ability to choose a candidate of their choice to fight for the needs of the community. It is crucial that every voter is fairly represented in our democracy, and in turn, that South Carolina’s district maps are drawn in line with the Constitution and federal law. Discriminatory redistricting limits the ability of Black voters to access representatives who can advocate for economic development, affordable housing, healthcare, resources for historically Black colleges and universities, and broadband internet, among many other issues. 

LDF Original Content

LDF returned to the U.S. Supreme Court to give oral argument in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. Take a deeper look into how oral argument day unfolded and the impact of the case. 

LDF Original Content

Discriminatory maps are a catalyst for oppressive legislation that targets our most vulnerable and historically abused communities. LDF has been on the frontlines to defend all voters’ right to fair representation. 

“In light of the total record, it reflects that there was a racial target, it reflects that there was a significant sorting of Black people, it reflects unrebutted expert evidence of race rather than party explaining the assignment of voters, it reflects a disregard of traditional redistricting principles — and all of that evidence in total is more than plausible, in the record, for using race as a means to harm individual plaintiffs."

Leah Aden

LDF Senior Counsel, Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP oral arguments

Allen v. Milligan

A Historic Victory for Voting Rights at the Supreme Court

Allen v. Milligan was a landmark redistricting case that successfully challenged Alabama’s congressional map drawn in 2021 for violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, which prohibits racially discriminatory voting practices and procedures. The case was argued by LDF Deputy Director of Litigation Deuel Ross. 

In a historic win for voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Allen v. Milligan in favor of Black voters, affirming the district court’s order striking down Alabama’s 2021-enacted congressional map for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for diluting Black political power, and requiring that Alabama redraw its congressional map. In its decision, the court also affirmed that under Section 2 of the VRA, race can be considered in the redistricting process to provide equal opportunities to communities of color and ensure they are not packed and cracked in a way that impermissibly weakens their voting strength.

In its decision reaffirming the legal test for evaluating claims under the VRA first adopted in the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the overwhelming evidence of discrimination presented by the plaintiffs in the district court. This decision is a clear message to lawmakers that their responsibility has not changed: They must ensure that voters of color are not denied an opportunity to participate in the electoral process. 

Litigation

The court’s decision in Allen v. Milligan was a historic win in the fight for voting rights in the face of countless continued attacks on democracy.We’ve compiled answers to frequently asked questions about Allen v. Milligan and its impact on voting rights and redistricting.  

LDF Original Content

LDF successfully challenged Alabama’s redistricting maps for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and diluting Black political power before the Supreme Court. Here, we take a closer look at the case’s details and provide on-the-ground insights as to how the LDF team’s day unfolded.

"There is nothing race neutral about Alabama's map. The district court’s unanimous and thorough intensely local analysis did not err in finding that the Black Belt is a historic and extremely poor community of substantial significance. Yet, Alabama’s map cracks that community and allows white bloc voting to deny Black voters the opportunity to elect representation responsive to their needs."

- Deuel Ross

LDF Senior Counsel, Merrill v. Milligan oral arguments

filed: 2022
Challenging Discriminatory Redistricting in Louisiana

Robinson v. Ardoin argues that the congressional map enacted by the Louisiana Legislature following the 2020 census dilutes the voting power of Black Louisianans and violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by failing to add a second majority-Black district. In June 2023, the Supreme Court lifted its stay that had been issued the previous summer in Robinson v. Ardion, LDF’s challenge to Louisianas congressional map. On November 11, 2023, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s finding that Louisiana’s congressional map is discriminatory and likely violates the federal Voting Rights Act. The appeals court set out a timeline for the state Legislature to adopt a new map.  

filed: 2022
Challenging Voter Suppression in Texas

Houston Area Urban League v. Abbott is a lawsuit challenging S.B. 1, a Texas law that greatly restricts access to voting. The lawsuit argues that S.B. 1 violates the First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by targeting and burdening methods and means of voting used by voters of color. S.B. 1 includes several suppressive voting provisions that will make it much harder for Texans to vote and disenfranchise some altogether, particularly Black and Latino voters and voters with disabilities. The case went to trial in September 2023. LDF represents Houston Area Urban League, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Arc of Texas, and Jeffrey Lamar Clemmons. Our case was consolidated with four other lawsuits under LUPE v. Abbott.

filed: 2021
Challenging Voter Suppression in Georgia

Filed in 2021, AME v. Kemp is a challenge to Georgia’s sweeping anti-voter law, S.B. 202. LDF secured important victories for Georgia voters in 2023 that will lift restrictions put in place by S.B. 202 for the 2024 elections. The federal court rulings blocked portions of the bill that banned Georgians from providing food and water to voters in line further than 150 feet from the polls, and that require voters to unnecessarily include their birthdate on absentee ballot envelopes. The court ruled that Georgia’s ban on line relief likely violated their First Amendment right to free expression. The court ruled that rejecting a voter’s absentee ballot because they failed to provide a birthdate or provided the wrong date on their ballot envelope violates a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbidding denying someone the right to vote based on an immaterial error or omission.  

How Shelby County v. Holder Broke Democracy    

Commemorating the 10th anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt its greatest blow to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its Shelby County v. Holder decision that gutted essential protections of the VRA. Shelby ushered in a wave of discriminatory voting and redistricting laws. From voter suppression to discriminatory redistricting, Shelby County v. Holder irrevocably changed the landscape of voting rights in the United States. We highlight key examples of the immediate state voter law changes that followed the Shelby County decision. 

LDF Original Content

Four LDF attorneys, some of whom were directly involved in litigating Shelby County v. Holder, reflect on the case’s impact, the loss of preclearance, and the path forward for voting rights.

Advocacy and Legislation

State Voting Rights Acts

Building a More Inclusive Democracy

LDF has been at the forefront of the new nationwide movement to revitalize American democracy by advancing State Voting Rights Acts (VRAs). State Voting Rights Acts provide critical protections to Black voters and other voters of color and build a more inclusive democracy. LDF was instrumental in the enactment of the Connecticut Voting Rights Act (CTVRA) in June 2023 and New York Voting Rights Act (NYVRA) in 2022. LDF is working to advance state VRAs in Maryland, New Jersey, and Michigan

With voter suppression rampant across the nation and little progress to reinstate the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, state VRAs are critical to protecting voters at the ballot box and ensuring a future of fair and equal voting rights. By enforcing comprehensive, clear standards, state VRAs prevent discrimination and expand opportunities to people disproportionately impacted by voter suppression. As we continue the work safeguard the right to vote and prevent discriminatory voting practices and policies, state VRAs are vital to advance our multi-racial democracy. 

Policy

With the passage of State Voting Rights Acts (VRAs), states provide key protections to their constituents that prevent and guard against discriminatory voting practices and policies. Learn more about legislation and voter protections in key states. 

LDF Original Content

At this important moment, a tandem approach of restoring and expanding federal voting rights legislation along with passing individual state VRAs is essential for providing the most robust voting protections for all voters in the United States.

Legislation

Connecticut Voting Rights Act

In a major win for voting rights, Connecticut enacted the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of Connecticut (“CTVRA”) in June 2023. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed the CTVRA into law as part of the state budget.  

This historic legislation seeks to expand voting access and strengthen protections against voting discrimination for communities of color throughout the state. The CTVRA is now the nation’s most comprehensive state-level voting rights act, setting a new standard for states across the country. This landmark victory is the product of dedicated advocacy and partnerships between Connecticut voters and civil and voting rights organizations who worked tirelessly to ensure that Connecticut voters can exercise their fundamental right to vote. 

Advocacy

Fighting Harmful Voting Bills in the State House, and in the Courtroom

In addition to litigation challenging suppressive voting bills, LDF fiercely advocates against bills that restrict access to voting and target Black voters before they ever become law. LDF worked with local partners in several states, including Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia, to build legislative records against bills that suppressed the ability of Black and brown voters to cast their ballot in elections and have their vote counted.

During the 2023 legislative session, the Texas Legislature advanced a slate of harmful voting bills that create new, unnecessary crimes and penalties, and could chill political participation in the state. LDF and the Texas Election Reform Commission fiercely advocated against these dangerous bills. Due in part to advocacy efforts, three of the bills – S.B. 220, S.B. 2, H.B. 1039 – were defeated. 

LDF also led the campaign in Mississippi against H.B. 1020, a bill that took authority away from local authorities and expanding the powers of state police in the Jackson area, the states largest Black city. The policy team led the civil rights and racial justice coalition in building a strong legislative record in preparation of litigation.

Election Protection

Safeguarding the Right to Vote, Year after Year

For more than a decade, LDF has prepared voters for election day, engaged volunteers year-round, and equipped voters with information needed to protect voting rights and support Black political participation. LDF engages with partners nationwide to monitor election issues, pursue proactive policy interventions, and — when needed — file lawsuits to protect voting rights leading up to election days.

Our election protection work doesn’t stop after Election Day. LDF staff work year-round to train volunteers across the country and ensure access to the ballot box. This year, LDF provided on-the-ground support and poll monitoring in several states. LDF and local partners fielded reports of voter suppression, intimidation, and other voter concerns to ensure all voters could cast their ballots. 

LDF Original Content

The 2024 Election cycle has officially dawned. In less than one year, people across the country will head to the polls and cast their votes to elect leaders at all levels of government.  

LDF Original Content

Black people have long served as guardians of a democracy that continues to marginalize them. This critical and increasingly risky election work mandates sustained investment and support.

LDF Original Content

Jails should promote civic engagement and political participation, not stifle it. Making it easier to vote from jail, including by establishing polling sites within local jails, is a crucial step toward fulfilling the promise of the right to vote for all.

LDF Original Content

Juneteenth prompts us to examine our shared history, confront uncomfortable truths, and work collectively toward a more just, inclusive future — one that includes full political empowerment.  

LDF President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson speaks to press in front of the Supreme Court after oral arguments in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC on October 31, 2022. (photo by Allison Shelley)

Educational Equity

Protecting Truth in Education; Race Conscious Admissions; School Desegregation

In Defense of Truth

Protecting Truth in Education

filed: 2022

Pernell v. Lamb is a lawsuit filed by a multi-racial group of educators and a student in Florida colleges and universities challenging the discriminatory classroom censorship law that severely restricts Florida educators and students from engaging in scholarship about issues related to race and gender. In an important victory for professors, other educators, and students across Florida, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed an injunction that LDF and our allies won to block Florida’s “STOP W.O.K.E Act”, a law that targets and places vague restrictions on educators’ ability to teach and discuss concepts around the legacy of slavery in America, white privilege, and anti-racism.  

Advocacy

Protecting Truth in Education in Texas

LDF successfully lobbied to defeat an anti-truth bill, S.B. 16, in the Texas Legislature, which would have made it difficult for professors to teach about race and racial discrimination at Texas colleges and universities. S.B. 16 would have prohibited faculty from compelling students to adopt a belief that any race, sex, or ethnicity or social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to any other race, sex, ethnicity, or belief at a public institution of higher education. The penalty for violating S.B. 16 would have been termination and revocation of tenure, if applicable.  

LDF Original Content

Public education has been taken hostage in Florida. And the state legislature and governor’s feverish campaign to strictly limit what facts and information can be accessed in public learning institutions is the driving force behind this egregious incursion. 

LDF Original Content

By characterizing discussions of race, gender, and LGBTQ+ experiences as “anti-American,” lawmakers have mounted a well-coordinated and increasingly prominent effort seeking to narrowly define what it means to be an American and who gets to lay claim to Americanism — in a thinly-veiled attempt to maintain and exacerbate a power stronghold over historically marginalized groups. 

TMI Briefs

Today’s attacks on truth are born out of a broader history where a small minority tries to use their power and privilege to eclipse racial justice progress. One way in which truth is attacked is through controlling the narratives told in children’s history textbooks, a practice dating back to the U.S. Civil War. In recognition of Black History Month, this TMI brief examines the ramifications of attempts by anti-truth groups to remove or whitewash our nation’s history and legacy of racism from K-12 public school classrooms. 

High school students in Temecula, California hold signs during a protest of the district's ban of critical race theory curriculum on Dec. 16, 2022. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)
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Anti-CRT bills introduced across state, local and federal governments since 2019.

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Anti-LGBTQ+ Bills Introduced in the first six weeks of 2022.
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States have authorized at least one anti-CRT measure as of Dec. 2022.

Educational Equity and Racial Justice After the SFFA cases

In June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court bowed to pressure from anti-civil rights activists, finding that Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s admissions policies violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Court’s decision in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC runs contrary to 45 years of precedent established in prior Supreme Court decisions upholding affirmative action policies, including Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Grutter v. Bollinger, and Fisher v. University of Texas. Efforts to advance opportunity in education have been under attack across the country, and the need for such programs remains acute. 

For decades, affirmative action has been a vital tool in advancing equal opportunity in higher education. Although it was never a cure-all for the stark inequalities in our educational system, affirmative action helped countless women and people of color overcome barriers to entry and gain admission to higher education. Then and now, the success of our multiracial democracy relies upon pathways to professional achievement that are open to all. 

The Supreme Court’s weakening of affirmative action underscores the urgent need to promote equal educational opportunities and advance racial equity through other lawful means. The Court’s ruling still allows colleges to consider how race has affected a student’s life and their ability to contribute to the educational institution. The Supreme Court’s decision demands an unequivocal response from all of us — to welcome race as worth acknowledging, not dismissing, in our institutions and to embrace students in their full identities. All students deserve the freedom and opportunity to have their full selves and lived experiences considered when seeking admission to institutions of higher learning. 

LDF Report

Affirmative Action in Higher Education

The racial justice landscape after the SFFA Cases

A new report offers recommendations for advancing educational equity in light of the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions, providing key recommendations that can increase access to equitable and diverse education. This report utilizes the expertise of leading civil rights organizations to provide a legal history of affirmative action in higher education, analyze the Supreme Court’s decision in the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) cases, discuss the racial justice consequences of upending 45 years of precedent, and offer recommendations for advancing educational equity in light of the decision.

Thurgood Marshall Institute Brief

Affirmative action in higher education was conceived as an essential tool for beginning to neutralize unequal educational opportunities across racial lines in American education. This Thurgood Marshall Institute brief examines the impact and necessity of affirmative action policies. 

Litigation

The Supreme Court's Affirmative Action Decision, Explained

To help you learn more about race-conscious admissions and educational equity, we compiled an FAQ about the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions and their impact. 

Protecting school policies that increase diversity
filed: 2020

LDF, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), and LatinoJustice PRLDEF represent a multi-racial group of students, families, organizations, and alumni of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia seeking to protect admissions policies that remove barriers to educational opportunities, increase diversity and provide fairer access to education. LDF and co-counsel have filed a number of amicus briefs in the case Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board urging the district and appellate court to make clear that a policy designed to equalize access to TJ was legally permissible. Implemented in 2021, the school’s admissions policy provided more equitable access for Black and Latinx students, who previously represented a small fraction of TJ’s student body. 

On May 23, 2023, a federal appeals court reversed a lower court ruling that incorrectly found the school’s admissions policy to be discriminatory, holding that a new admissions policy which created more equal access for Black, Latinx, and underserved Asian American students is in fact constitutional. In its ruling, the court highlighted that rather than being discriminatory against Asian American students, as alleged by the plaintiff – it has resulted in increased numbers of low-income Asian American students being admitted to TJ. 

School Desegregation

Thomas v. School Board of St. Martin Parish is a long-running school desegregation case. LDF and co-counsel Gideon Garter of Baton Rouge represent the plaintiffs, Black students and parents in the case. In May 2023, LDF was successful in convincing a federal court to order the school district in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana to address racial discrimination and disparities in school discipline, teacher hiring and retention, and student access to college preparation courses. In August 2023, LDF was also successful in getting the court to order St. Martin school district to ensure further racial integration at historically black schools by ordering the opening of a new magnet program at two historically Black schools and adopting new school grade structures and attendance zones. These rulings are significant step forward in the case and bring the St. Martin Parish school district one step closer to offering an equitable education for all students.

Lee v. Chambers County Board of Education

LDF successfully convinced a district court to delay the closure and consolidation of a historically Black high school in Chambers County, Alabama until the school district was able to build a new high school. The federal court ruled that the plan for consolidation can proceed but the Chambers County School District must keep LaFayette High, a majority-Black high school, open until a new school is built. Chambers County is one of nearly fortyAlabama school districts under active desegregation orders.

LDF reached a settlement with the school district in St. James Parish, Louisiana to address ongoing racial discrimination and disparities in discipline, teacher hiring and recruitment, and facilities. 

LDF Original Content

Baltimore City schoolchildren deserve to learn in safe, healthy environments where they can develop the skills they need to succeed and thrive. Only then will Maryland deliver on its constitutional promise to all students and ensure another generation of children is not left behind. 

LDF Original Content

The burden of student loan debt is at a crisis level, and students of color are bearing the brunt. This debt impacts countless aspects of their lives — and exacerbates an already staggering racial wealth gap. Forgiving student loans is a necessary step toward closing this gap, which is critical for advancing racial and economic justice in the United States.

Protesters gather in Atlanta in opposition to the construction of Cop City. (Source: Shutterstock)

Justice in the Courts,
Justice in the Streets

Justice in Public Safety, Criminal Justice, Qualified Immunity

Justice in Public Safety Project

The Justice in Public Safety Project works in deep partnership with impacted Black communities and families at the local level At the state and federal level, LDF creates opportunities for impacted people and communities to participate in state and federal policy processes as well so state and federal officials can hear directly from those most impacted. 

Framework for Public Safety

Issued in January 2023 after the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, LDF’s Framework for Public Safety outlines our affirmative vision for a just public safety system. We have begun to implement this Framework by supporting Black local leaders and groups who are experimenting with alternative responders and non-carceral solutions to disputes and conduct that often become criminalized such as restorative justice processes. 

A team of attorneys and organizers have been heavily involved with the advocacy against the development of a $90 million militarized law enforcement training facility near Atlanta, Georgia, which has been referred to as “Cop City.” The aggressive law enforcement and prosecutorial response by officials to opponents of Cop City demonstrates the continuing backlash to racial justice protestors voicing criticism to our current failed system of public safety which relies exclusively on ineffective law enforcement is not only a criminal justice issue, it’s a democracy and political participation issue because it threatens to chill people’s exercise of their First Amendment rights. 

LDF testified before the Atlanta City Council on June 6, 2023, opposing Cop City in a marathon hearing that lasted until the next morning. Following the Council’s vote to fund Cop City, collaborated with local community partners to support a referendum to repeal the city legislation that authorized the building of Cop City. LDF, with partners, collected 116,000 signatures to put the question of whether to construct Cop City on the ballot. 

The Georgia Attorney General has charged 61 individuals opposed to Cop City with RICO charges, and 42 individuals with domestic terrorism charges under a Georgia state statute. LDF attorneys trained Georgia attorneys and law students during 4 trainings on defending individuals arrested while exercising First Amendment rights as part of the First Amendment Bridge project of the Southern Center for Human Rights. 

Protesters gather downtown in opposition to the construction of Cop City. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Justice in Public Safety Project

To help you learn more about Cop City, as well as the state of public safety in Atlanta, LDF has compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions. This resource includes information about the dangers of Cop City, the community opposition towards the project, efforts to stop it, and more.

Baker v. City of Atlanta
filed: 2023
Cop City

On September 21, 2023, LDF filed an amicus brief in Baker v. City of Atlanta, challenging Atlanta Municipal Code Sec. 66-37(b)’s ban on non-Atlanta residents collecting referendum petition signatures. LDF’s brief argued that the residents of the majority-Black DeKalb County have a vested First Amendment interest in collecting petitions from their Atlanta neighbors because the Supreme Court recognizes this activity as core political speech. The construction of Cop City raises a host of environmental, health, and public safety concerns that directly impact DeKalb County residents, and they have the right to engage their neighbors about these critical issues. 

filed: 2020
Protecting Communities From Police Violence

In March 2023, LDF and co-counsel reached a historic settlement with the City of Philadelphia in Smith v. City of Philadelphia, a federal lawsuit that challenged the Philadelphia Police Department’s excessive, militaristic use of force during peaceful protests in 2020 in the predominantly Black neighborhood of West Philadelphia. Pursuant to the settlement, the City agreed to pay $9,250,000 to those harmed, to disengage with the federal 1033 program which transfers military equipment to local law enforcement, and commit $500,000 to a fund that will provide interdisciplinary, trauma-informed counseling to victims of police violence and provide support for and promote community-led programming in the aftermath of police violence and misconduct. 

filed: 2023
Qualified Immunity

In January 2023, LDF secured an important victory in a qualified immunity excessive force case. LDF represented a man named David Getzen who was pepper-sprayed and repeatedly tased by police despite being unarmed and not physically resisting arrest in a lawsuit against Deputy Jeff Long of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona. On January 6, 2023, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a decision affirming the lower court’s denial of qualified immunity to Deputy Long. The court held that the Deputy Long’s conduct violated the Fourth Amendment because Mr. Getzen had shown no resistance to the officer’s commands and had done nothing to threaten the officer in any way and that any reasonable officer would have known that using such significant force on a non-resisting person violated the law. The court’s decision denying permits Mr. Getzen’s civil rights claims to proceed to trial. 

filed: 2021
Qualified Immunity

In March 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated a District Court’s grant of qualified immunity to corrections officers who are alleged to have engaged in a campaign of religious bigotry and harassment against Charles Mack, a practicing Muslim, during his incarceration at a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania. The decision clears the way for Mr. Mack’s claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute that prohibits government agencies and officials from unjustified interference with a person’s exercise of their faith, to proceed to trial. In November 2021, LDF and Rights Behind Bars submitted an amicus brief in support of Mr. Mack, arguing in part that the Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because it should have been obvious that the egregious discriminatory conduct alleged in this case was unlawful.   

filed: 2023

LDF served as amicus and delivered oral argument before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Dew. In the first court ruling of its kind, the SJC vacated the convictions of a Black man of Muslim faith and ordered him a new trial, after finding that his court-appointed attorney had well-documented racist and Islamophobic views that presented an actual conflict of interest. In the amicus brief and oral argument, LDF urged the SJC to reverse the conviction of Anthony Dew, arguing that his attorney’s pervasive pattern of publicly expressing anti-Black racism and religious bigotry against Muslim people was structural error and that reversal was required. 

LDF Original Content

The myths that are used to justify qualified immunity are numerous and egregious, and the dangers are clear. We debunk these myths and show QI’s detrimental impacts, particularly on communities of color, and the hazard posed to public safety. 

LDF Original Content

In federal pattern-or-practice investigations, the Department of Justice engages in a deep dive into a police department’s history, evaluating whether the department has systematically engaged in excessive uses of force, raciallybiased policing, unreasonable stops and searches, discrimination, and more. 

Thurgood Marshall Institute Brief

Research by the Thurgood Marshall Institute found striking disparities in police responses to protests in the summer of 2020. At racial justice demonstrations, police were more likely to be present, more likely to have an escalated presence, and more likely to escalate their response to include arrests, projectiles, and chemical weapons, compared to similar demonstrations unrelated to racial justice. 

Thurgood Marshall Institute Brief

Formerly incarcerated people and their families are forced into a “second-class citizenship” where they face lifelong racial stigmatization and legalized discrimination. People with records are stigmatized, legally excluded from multiple professions due to state and local licensing schemes, and excluded from hiring opportunities by both public and private employers because of overly broad policies banning applicants with criminal records. 

(Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Economic Justice

Water Access; Housing Discrimination; Black Farmers

filed: 2019
Water Access

LDF represents Black residents of Cleveland, Ohio in a class action lawsuit addressing the city’s discriminatory water liens and shutoff practices. The lawsuit, which brings claims under the Fair Housing Act and the Ohio Civil Rights Act, challenges Cleveland Water’s water lien policy for allegedly placing Black residents at increased risk of losing their homes. According to the lawsuit, Cleveland Water converted thousands of unpaid water bills to liens on customers’ properties, and the water department placed materially more water liens in majority-Black Census blocks than in majority-white blocks in Cuyahoga County, even when comparing neighborhoods with the same median income. The lawsuit also alleges that Cleveland Water overbills customers, and shuts off water service when they are unable to pay their bills, often with no notice, in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment, as well as the Ohio Constitution. The City has twice asked the Court to reject the lawsuit. In 2023, a federal court allowed the case to move forward and granted plaintiffs’ motion for class certification — an important step that allows a court to consider the claims of a group of similarly situated persons with the same legal claims. 

Thurgood Marshall Institute Brief

An Update on Water Crises facing Black Communities

We are in a national environmental justice crisis in which Black communities lack equal access to plumbing, face higher risks of water contamination, and suffer disproportionately from water unaffordability. Water/Color 2023 provides an overview of the drivers of racial inequity in water access, highlights examples of recent and ongoing water and wastewater crises in urban and rural Black communities, reviews strategies to address water affordability through legislation and litigation, and provides recommendations for steps federal, state, and local governments can take to ensure all people have access to clean, safe, and affordable water. The new brief is an update to TMI’s 2019 report Water/Color: A Study of Race and the Water Affordability Crisis in America’s Cities examining the link between race and the price of water. 

Thurgood Marshall Institute Brief

Discrimination in the Housing Voucher Program in Memphis, Tennessee

Conducted over three years, Bad Housing Blues: Discrimination in the Housing Choice Voucher Program in Memphis, Tennessee looks at economic and racial discrimination in housing, investigating the local rental market, assessing attitudes, and identifying policies and practices that impede the ability of voucher holders to secure safe and affordable housing. The report finds that there is significant discrimination based on source of income in both Memphis and Shelby County. The report found barriers to securing safe and affordable housing for Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) holders included “No Section 8” policies; Housing Choice Voucher tenant quotas; steering or restricting access to housing; and employment, minimum income, and payment requirements. Source of income discrimination disproportionately affects renters of color, women, and people with disabilities. Because of this, source of income discrimination perpetuates racially segregated communities and neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. 

Policy Advocacy

The history of discrimination against Black farmers and policy initiatives to remedy these inequities.

Black farmers have long faced systemic discrimination by public and private institutions and barriers to economic mobility. Inequities in the administration of government farm programs and discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have had a devastating impact on rural communities of color. We’ve compiled an FAQ and timeline to help you learn more about the history of Black farmers and current efforts to support Black farmers. 

LDF Original Content

Federal, state, and local laws protect homeowners from discrimination in home appraisals but appraisal bias remains a persistent problem, contributing to the growing Black-white racial wealth gap. A home’s value can affect how much equity homeowners can take out for a loan to pay for education and other expenses, and how much the homeowners pay in property taxes, among other things.  

LDF Original Content

By characterizing discussions of race, gender, and LGBTQ+ experiences as “anti-American,” lawmakers have mounted a well-coordinated and increasingly prominent effort seeking to narrowly define what it means to be an American and who gets to lay claim to Americanism — in a thinly-veiled attempt to maintain and exacerbate a power stronghold over historically marginalized groups. 

Justice Above All Podcast

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.

Making History

LDF Leadership and Staff

LDF's Associate Director-Counsel

In January 2023, Tona Boyd began her tenure as Associate Director-Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund. Ms. Boyd works in partnership with President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson and LDF’s senior leadership team to set and execute the strategic direction of the organization’s legal programs, operations, and administration. Ms. Boyd most recently served as Special Counsel and Special Assistant to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office in the Biden-Harris Administration, where she worked to advance President Biden’s agenda related to racial justice, equity, and judicial nominations.

Black Women Oralists at the Supreme Court

On October 11, 2023, LDF Senior Counsel Leah Aden presented oral argument on behalf of Black South Carolina voters in the seminal racial gerrymandering case Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. The case was the fourth argument presented by LDF before the Supreme Court in the last decade. 

Ms. Aden stepped into LDF’s long history of Supreme Court litigators. Ms. Aden was the fifth woman from LDF to present an argument before the Supreme Court in roughly the past fifty years. She joins a distinguished list of LDF women attorneys who have argued before the Supreme Court, including Constance Baker Motley, Elaine Jones in 1982, Penda Hair in 1988 and 1996, Judith Reed in 1990, and Pamela Karlan in 1991, and Christina Swarns in 2016. 

Eastern District of New York Judge and Former LDF Deputy Director of Litigation

On June 21, 2023, LDF’s then Deputy Director of Litigation Natasha Merle was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. As a civil rights attorney, Ms. Merle dedicated her career to public service and ensuring people have access to justice. Hers is a much needed voice on the federal bench.  

Ms. Merle is the first attorney since LDF’s founder Thurgood Marshall, to be confirmed directly from the LDF to the federal bench. She is the first public defender to serve on this Court in nearly 30 years, and only the second judge in the Court’s history to ever serve as a public defender. She is also the sixth Black judge in the EDNY. 

LDF Events

National Equal Justice Awards Dinner; Selma Jubilee

The Future is Ours

35th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner

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. The evening also serves as an opportunity to celebrate the tremendous civil rights work that has been accomplished by LDF over the past year. NEJAD was held on May 4, 2023.

Pioneering Civil Rights Movement attorney Fred Gray was awarded the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his decades-long career advancing racial justice and equality. Mr. Gray served as a cooperating attorney with LDF since 1956.

Founder, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners Robert F. Smith was awarded the National Equal Justice Award for his stalwart philanthropic leadership in the fight for racial justice.

Nike, Jordan Brand, and Converse were awarded the National Equal Justice Award for their years of support for LDF and service to Black communities.

Emerson Collective was the National Equal Justice Award Program Honoree in recognition of their profound commitment to lifting up leaders, communities, and sustainable solutions.

Legendary filmmaker Spike Lee, NBA star Carmelo Anthony, education pioneer Geoffrey Canada, and Earle, Arkansas Mayor Jaylen Smith presented awards to this year’s honorees. The evening was hosted by ABC7 News Anchor Sade BaderinwaBrooklyn United Evolution Drumline, Alita Moses, and Ledisi performed throughout the evening.

NEJAD 2023: The Future is Ours

Selma 2023

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. 

LDF led an all-star panel, moderated by MSNBC’s Joy Reid, to discuss the current state of voting rights in the context of multiple voting milestones. The panelists included LDF President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson, Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights CEO Maya Wiley, Color of Change President Rashad Robinson, Advancement Project Executive Director Judith Brown Dianis, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Executive Director of Alabama Forward and LDF client Evan Milligan, and Alabama Forward Chief Field and Campaign Strategist and LDF client Khadidah Stone

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. 

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