Civil Rights Attys Talk about The Street Traveled And Path Forward

Eva Paterson has been a civil rights attorney for nearly five decades, but she remembers being so frustrated for days during the Rehnquist court that she considered giving up her attorney altogether.

“I remember driving to work and every day there was a terrible Supreme Court decision that made me abandon the law and start a jazz club,” she said Friday during an American Bar Association panel .

The memory was a timely memory; The conservative bank of the Supreme Court doesn’t seem particularly receptive to the civil rights attorney’s arguments. Paterson’s remarks coincided with the 56th anniversary of the Suffrage Act and came about a month after the Brnovich Supreme Court ruled against the Democratic National Committee , which made the assertion of claims according to § 2 of this law difficult.

But Paterson, president and founder of the Equal Justice Society, said one of the joys of being a civil rights attorney is that your calling is your calling, too.

“I pick up the paper and see something and say, ‘I want to do something about it,'” she said. “And I’m getting paid for it. It’s remarkable.”

Paterson was one of four attorneys who spoke during the ABA panel on Friday about their decades of experience on lessons learned and the path ahead. One of the lessons they wanted to teach young lawyers is that there are many ways to get involved in civil rights work.

“There is no one way,” said Paul Smith.

After graduating from law school, he had hoped to work for a civil rights organization or the government but ended up at boutique firms and then BigLaw, where he took on several pro bono affairs. He honed his appointment practice at Jenner & Block and now works at the Campaign Legal Center, a voting rights watchdog group.

“There are so many different ways you can do much of this good work,” he said.

The diversity of careers of the panelists also seemed to reflect this credo.

Leslie Proll first worked as a secretary to a Richard Nixon-appointed federal judge in Alabama, then took a position with a small private civil rights law firm before finally joining the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Paterson turned down jobs with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights four times before taking on what would span 26 years of her career.

John C. Brittain, who won the 1996 Sheff v O’Neill case, which improved the Connecticut Supreme Court case to improve educational equity, said his work as a law professor and as a trial attorney was equally important to him. Both strengthened his identity as a “social engineer,” he said, quoting Charles Hamilton Houston, the NAACP’s first general counsel, who said, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite of society.”

Panellists also spoke about the importance of getting on with their jobs, both by caring for the next generation of civil rights attorneys and by practicing self-care. Brittain said he teaches students in his crime class, “Protect your mental and physical health or the law will kill you.”

They also discussed litigation strategy and how they had learned some lessons the hard way.

Smith, who won Lawrence against Texas in 2003 Case, the landmark High Court ruling on homosexual rights that overturns sodomy laws, found that victory after the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick Decision to uphold a Georgia state law prohibiting sodomy. He said Bowers was filed too early and “cost us 17 years of grief”.

“These are important strategic calls that would add to the list of things civil rights attorneys need to be particularly good at – knowing when to go where and on what topic,” he said.

But there were also lessons from the victories.

In 2015, Paterson said, the term “implicit bias” moved from a term “everyone laughed at” to a concept referred to by Judge Anthony Kennedy of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project based Case. This case borrowed the social science strategy outlined in the pioneering Brown v. Board of Education from 1954 was used Decision, Paterson said, to argue that racial hatred is not necessary to show a discriminatory outcome in low-income homes.

Proll, who now advises the NAACP on the appointment of judges, noted that another recent victory for civil rights attorneys is their ability to compete for a seat on the Bundesbank. Second Circuit Suffrage and Second Circuit Candidate Myrna Pérez and DC Federal District Court Candidate Jia Cobb, a former DC public defender who has focused on civil rights litigation in private practice, both deleted recently the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That was an example of the many career opportunities a civil rights attorney has to offer, said Proll, who herself joined the bar on the hill from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Her experience as a litigator gave her the tools she needed to assess judges’ competency. If a state court judge granted a summary judgment motion and prevented a case from going to court, it could provide an indication of the type of lawyers they would be at the Bundesbank.

Her career, she said, was just one example of why there should be “a broad definition of the civil rights attorney”.

“Sometimes people think it means you are litigating one of the national civil rights organizations. And that’s right, they are civil rights attorneys. But there are many more ways to practice civil rights attorneys, ”she said. “You can be an organizer, you can be a lawyer, you can be a trial candidate, you can do political work.”

– Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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