The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) deeply mourns the loss of Professor Lani Guinier, a trailblazing educator and acclaimed scholar, civil rights lawyer, and former LDF attorney who dedicated her prodigious career to making America’s democracy more accessible and representative of the nation’s diversity, as well as producing leading scholarship on how to address the systemic racism embedded in this country’s laws and institutions. Ms. Guinier was one of the most consequential voting rights litigators and scholars in our country.
“Lani Guinier’s career as a civil rights lawyer and the example she set as an advocate was instrumental to inspiring countless attorneys, including myself, to continue building on the path she trailblazed,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. “She was not only an indefatigable leader in the hard-fought quest to perfect our democracy, but also a teacher of many who have gone on to do that work—I am privileged to count myself in that number, and will always remember Professor Guinier as an icon and a great American. She trained me as a voting rights lawyer, and set an example for me of our obligation to respect and elevate the voices of our clients in our work. She set the standard as an intellectual, a scholar, and a civil rights advocate.”
Lani Guinier was born in New York City on April 19, 1950, to Eugenia Paprin and Ewart Guinier — parents who were civil rights activists in their own right. Ewart, Lani’s father, was himself a lawyer and trailblazer who was one of only two Black students admitted to Harvard University in 1929, but was subsequently forced to leave the school prematurely due to the discriminatory environment.
“In the back of my mind I always wanted to be a civil rights lawyer,” Ms. Guinier said in an interview with The History Makers. “But when I was a senior in high school, my most important focus was that I had to go to Harvard because I had to vindicate my father’s experience of not being able to finish.”
Alongside wanting to mirror her father, Ms. Guinier’s initial inspiration to become a civil rights lawyer came from Constance Baker Motley, who was the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge and also a former LDF litigator. At 12 years old, Ms. Guinier watched on television as Ms. Motley escorted a Black student through a hostile white crowd to desegregate the University of Mississippi in 1962 and decided she, too, wanted to spend her life defending civil rights and justice.
Pursuing this path, Ms. Guinier earned her B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1971 and her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1974. While earning her law degree, Ms. Guinier interned at the law office of Julius Chambers, LDF’s third Director-Counsel, and then interned at LDF under Elaine Jones, the first female Director-Counsel.
“My law student summer internships with Julius Chambers’ law firm in North Carolina and the following summer at LDF with Elaine working on cases in Alabama had seared in me a connection to the power of local people changing their own lives,” Ms. Guinier later wrote in her 1998 tome, Lift Every Voice. “My hero was Julius Chambers — a man who saw his own car blown up outside the North Carolina church where he was speaking, and without skipping a beat continued the mass meeting.”
“Elaine knows how to reach people,” Ms. Guinier also wrote. “She is a powerful, dramatic persona, whose impassioned oratory prompted me to walk up to her at a conference on Blacks and the bar examination while I was still a law student. After I heard her speak, I volunteered to work for her on the spot.”
“For more than 40 years, Lani Guinier cared deeply about the work of LDF and demonstrated it,” said Ms. Jones. “Whether interning at LDF as a law student studying fairness in the administration of bar exams; or as a staff lawyer contributing significantly to the 25-year extension of a substantially strengthened 1982 Voting Rights Act; or directing LDF’s litigation enforcing the Act, Lani always gave LDF her best.”
After law school, Ms. Guinier worked in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice as a Special Assistant to Assistant Attorney General Drew Days under the Carter Administration, and then in 1981 she followed in the steps of the lawyers who inspired her and took a role at LDF as Assistant Counsel.
“I mourn the passing to Lani Guinier,” said former LDF President and Director-Counsel Ted Shaw. “She was a dear friend, a beloved colleague, a comrade in the struggle for civil rights, and a fellow traveler in life. Lani was one of the great civil rights lawyers and trailblazing Black legal scholars. Her legacy is unsurpassed. We will not forget her, or what she has done.”
As head of LDF’s Voting Rights Project, Ms. Guinier played a key role in the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982— a consequential fight in the long and continuing battle to protect Black voters’ access to the ballot box. Alongside Ms. Jones and a coalition of civil rights advocates, Ms. Guinier’s work was crucial to defeating Congressional efforts to amend the Act to require challengers to discriminatory voting practices meet the virtually impossible standard of proving the methods were implemented with discriminatory intent. Civil rights advocates were successful in convincing Congress to move away from that approach, and Section 2 of the Act was instead amended to specify that a “totality of circumstances” be evaluated to determine if voting methods had discriminatory impact— a standard that the Supreme Court would later undermine in its 2021 Brnovich v. DNC decision.
“What began serendipitously became an intellectual, professional and spiritual cause,” said Ms. Guinier of her contribution to securing the strengthening of the Voting Rights Act in the 1980s. “It was through my eventual mastery of the Voting Rights Act that I learned to love the law. I found in it a concrete opportunity to bridge the dissonance I had discovered in fourth grade between American promises and actions. For me, the 1965 Voting Rights Act became a sacred document that took us as a society closer to the fundamental truths of democracy.”
Following the extension and amendment of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, Ms. Guinier continued to commit her judicious litigation skills to defend the Act and the rights it enshrined for Black voters, both of which were under siege by the Reagan Administration. Ms. Guinier led a team of LDF lawyers in defending activists across the South, including in Alabama, who were being targeted with specious charges including conspiracy, mail fraud, and violations of the VRA for encouraging Black people to vote.
Ms. Guinier was part of the legal team, along with another LDF attorney, Deval Patrick, later Governor of Massachusetts), who defended the Marion 3, civil rights activists in Perry County, Alabama, who were prosecuted for voter fraud by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The legal team of LDF and local Alabama lawyers secured the acquittal of the activists.
Ms. Guinier became one of LDF’s top litigators, winning 31 out of the 32 cases she argued, including those challenging discriminatory vote dilution schemes and unfair reapportionment and redistricting practices in places like Chicago, New Orleans, and North Carolina.
“In the United States, somehow we want to make it difficult for some people to vote,” Ms. Guinier said in a 2015 interview with CSPAN’s In-Depth. “We tend to put the burden on the individual, and say: ‘Well, they could vote, the fact they didn’t walk 13 miles to get to vote, that’s their problem.’ We could say, ‘Our goal is to get as many people as possible participating in the political process.’ Number one, because it will influence the outcome of the process in a way that’s more fair.”vernor of
In 1988, Ms. Guinier joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School where she would go on to teach for a decade. There, she built a reputation as a creative and rigorous scholar and an excellent educator. One of her courses — “Law and the Political Process” — was voted one of the best classes at the university by students in 1996.
Ms. Guinier joined Harvard Law School in 1998 as the school’s first Black woman to be granted tenure — a fitting full circle moment, given her childhood desire to vindicate her father for being pushed out of Harvard University (Ewart Guinier later became the founding chairman of Harvard’s Afro American Studies Department). As a leading legal scholar and educator, Ms. Guinier frequently advocated for diversity in the legal profession, including by encouraging pedological approaches that could make the field more beneficial for all — particularly women, who are marginalized in the field and in the classroom.
“Women can learn from men how to ‘play the game,’ and men can learn from women that there is a value to coming to class with the goal of listening and of making a contribution building on what other people are saying. That goal has the potential of making you an excellent lawyer,” Ms. Guinier said in 1999, during a speech she delivered before a group of Harvard Law alumnae — among them highly accomplished women such as Attorney General Janet Reno and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “It was my experience as a trial lawyer, it was my experience as a government lawyer, and certainly is my experience as an academic, that those who listen are in a better position to take criticism and use it to move forward in a constructive fashion.”
Amid Ms. Guinier’s widely well-regarded career as a litigator and educator, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in 1993. In response, conservatives unleashed a wave of attacks and targeted Ms. Guinier with a smear campaign that presented language from her writings on voting rights and education, without context, to frame her as being racially biased with the purpose of blocking her confirmation. The attacks were unfortunately successful — President Clinton withdrew the nomination, meaning Ms. Guinier was denied even a hearing to respond to the aspersions being made in the media and in the U.S. Senate about her and the laudable body of work she had built throughout an admirable career of fighting for civil rights.
“The irony is that it never occurred to me I would be walking into a public controversy when Clinton offered me the nomination for assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993,” Ms. Guinier later told Harvard Law Today of the experience, explaining why the prospect of being the first Black woman to have tenure at Harvard did not dissuade her given what she had weathered on the national stage.
Ms. Guinier chronicled the nomination controversy for the first time in her own voice in her 1998 book Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice. In it, Ms. Guinier spoke of the support she felt from LDF specifically, and the civil rights community at large, when she was nominated.
“They championed my nomination and sought to convince administration officials, despite some objections early on to my writings, that the right choice had been made,” wrote Ms. Guinier. “In my mind I see Elaine Jones, Director-Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund and one of my most fervent backers.”
Fittingly, the wider legal and civil rights communities’ respect for Ms. Guinier remained undiminished despite the political attacks against her. Indeed, the nomination controversy created a broader platform for Ms. Guinier, and elevated her voice and scholarship.
She was the recipient of 11 honorary degrees and multiple awards, including the 1993 William H. Hastie Award from the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice; the 1995 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession; the Champion of Democracy Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus; the Rosa Parks Award from the American Association for Affirmative Action; the Harvey Levin Teaching Award; the 2002 Sacks-Freund Teaching Award from Harvard Law School; and the Deborah W. Meier Hero in Education Award from Fairtest. Smith College, Spelman College, Swarthmore College, and the University of the District of Columbia are among the educational institutions that granted Ms. Guinier honorary degrees.
A prolific writer, Ms. Guinier penned over two dozen scholarly articles and op-eds, as well as additional books: The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy in 2002 (co-authored with Gerald Torres); 2015’s Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America; The Tyranny of the Majority (1994); and Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School and Institutional Change (with co-authors Michelle Fine and Jane Balin in 1997).
In 2007, Ms. Guinier was a visiting professor at Columbia Law School and was a 2009 fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.
A conference was organized in October 2021 by Sherrie Russell-Brown, a Senior Researcher at Yale Law School, and Yale Law Professor Gerald Torres, to celebrate the professional contributions of Professor Guinier. Colleagues in the academy, civil rights lawyers, and former students convened by Zoom for a day-long conference focused on Professor Guinier’s extraordinary contributions to the academy and to civil rights law. She was able to join the event for part of the day. Her son, Niko, an Assistant Professor at Harvard Law School, participated in the commemoration.
Ms. Guinier is survived by her husband, Nolan, and Niko. She will also be mourned by the many lawyers who worked alongside her or benefited from her guidance and instruction, as well as countless Americans who have been the beneficiaries of her work to defend their fundamental rights. Ms. Guinier leaves behind an unimpeachable legacy of committing her talent, skill, and voice to helping America live up to its ideals.