On Tuesday, Nov. 27, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Vanita Gupta delivered the twenty-sixth annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture to a rapt audience at UDC Law.
The event reunited Gupta, who served as head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice during one of the most consequential periods for the division, with her former colleague Jonathan Smith, ’84, who served as Chief of the Special Litigation Section under Gupta’s leadership.
The interview-style conversation showcased Gupta’s profound knowledge and experience as a leading-edge civil rights litigator over the course of the wide-ranging discussion on the present landscape for civil and human rights in America. Throughout the evening, Gupta offered penetrating insight into rapidly-changing areas of law ranging from asylum law and constitutional structures to state-level bail reform and voting rights initiatives. Drawing on her experience as the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States, Gupta weighed in on numerous, complex issues currently undergoing litigation and offered a hard-hitting critique of the Trump administration’s efforts to straitjacket the Department of Justice’s ability to investigate and prosecute civil rights violations and compromise the agency’s independence.
The Rauh Lecture: A Lasting Legacy
Chair Emeritus of the D.C. School of Law Foundation B. Michael Rauh opened the event with brief remarks on the history of the Foundation and the legacy of his late father Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., the liberal lion, civil liberties attorney, and founding member of the law school’s Board of Governors in whose honor the Rauh Lecture was established in 1993.
Rauh commended the selection of Gupta as this year’s Rauh Lecturer saying she “would lead the country in the good fight against” the current administration’s efforts to roll back civil and human rights protections, and he exhorted the many practicing lawyers and up-and-coming attorneys in the audience to stand ready to aggressively litigate for the protection of our democracy at her side.
“The Next Move”
UDC Law Acting Dean and Professor of Law John Brittain then took to the stage to introduce Gupta and Smith to the audience. Dean Brittain – who is himself a prominent civil rights litigator who has achieved many landmark victories for school desegregation during his decades-long career – celebrated Gupta’s remarkable perseverance and skillful leadership of the Civil Rights Division to secure groundbreaking victories for fair housing, voting rights, and police accountability in the federal courts despite “unremitting opposition” from a partisan Congress.
Dean Brittain singled out as a high watermark of her tenure the division’s successful investigation and prosecution of police departments in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, and Chicago. The groundbreaking investigations produced consent decrees with historic limits on racially-motivated policing and civil rights abuses that remain in force to this day. He went on to praise Gupta for choosing to join The Leadership Conference after leaving the Justice Department, saying that “Instead of ‘cashing out’ on her long record of public service after leaving the Justice Department, she doubled down” by joining the historic organization, which has coordinated the lobbying efforts on behalf of every major civil rights law since its founding in 1950.
Noting that Gupta and Smith, as Chief of the Special Litigation Section, shared leadership on the Justice Department’s civil investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department following the death of Michael Brown, Dean Brittain highlighted that the living room-style conversation offered listeners a rare opportunity to see this historic Justice Department “team in action.” “It’s like we’re together in a conference room in the Department of Justice,” said Dean Brittain, “and we’re planning the next move.”
“Gamechanger:” voting rights and ballot access
Jonathan Smith, who worked under Gupta’s leadership of the Civil Rights Division, opened the conversation-style portion of the lecture with high praise for Gupta’s “extraordinary career.” Smith recounted Gupta’s multiple and precedent-setting court victories, including her landmark litigation challenging wrongful convictions in Texas as an entry-level attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and extending through her criminal justice reform work and litigation at the ACLU challenging the detention of immigrant families in for-profit facilities.
For her part, Gupta praised the “extraordinary legacy of public service” that the Rauh family represents and its continued support of UDC Law, saying “the civil rights community is deeply indebted to all of you.”
With the stage set, the audience listened in rapt attention as Smith kicked off the discussion with a question about the 2018 midterm elections, asking Gupta what the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives means for the civil rights agenda. Gupta responded that the election was, first and foremost, a “huge win for democracy” as a practical matter, because it restored a much-needed check in Congress after two years of one-party rule.
Gupta also emphasized the importance for civil and human rights in America of the election of several “first-ever” officials to Congress, including the first Muslim and first Native American women elected to Congress, and the historic number of women representatives in the House. She hailed the result as “a massive win for civil and human rights” with far-reaching implications.
Gupta also stressed the wave of progressive state-level ballot initiatives approved by voters. Gupta singled out the Florida initiative restoring voting rights to 1.4 million people convicted of a felony as a “gamechanger,” noting that it is “the single largest expansion of the franchise since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in the ‘60s.”
In the wake of Charlottesville and constant attacks on immigrant families, Gupta described the November election results as a reaffirmation that “Americans will show up at the polls for the kind of country they want and the kind of country they deserve.”
“Despair is the luxury of the privileged”
The conversation shifted to the state of federal civil rights enforcement in the country, as Smith asked Gupta whether the new Congress can reverse the erosion of agency civil rights enforcement authority at not only the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division but also at civil rights sections across the government, including the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Gupta responded with a laundry list of potential targets for congressional oversight in what she referred to as the administration’s “systematic effort” to dismantle civil rights enforcement authority encompassing “underenforcement at the Department of Education, the systematic withdrawal of guidances, the slowdown and lack of enforcement of laws that Congress enacted and gave to these federal agencies the mandate to enforce.” Expressing hope for improved oversight in the new Congress, Gupta stressed the important role the House can play in bringing the public’s attention to the “deeply important and historic role that the federal government has played in ensuring the protection of vulnerable and marginalized communities through its civil rights enforcement across agencies.”
Fair and independent courts are “fundamental” to democracy
Bringing the conversation around to the topic of the Senate’s role in confirming judicial nominees to the federal bench, and the Republican party’s continued control of the chamber, Smith asked Gupta what lessons she learned from The Leadership Conference’s effort to block the confirmation of now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and other judicial nominees based on their records of opposition to civil rights and anti-discrimination measures.
Speaking to the history of The Leadership Conference, which she now leads, Gupta emphasized the importance of coalitional organizing to preserve the independence of the federal judiciary, which has for decades served as “a backstop against some of the most egregious excesses of the other two branches of government.”
In what she termed the “shocking” and aggressive reshaping of the federal courts in the past two years with the confirmation of “extremist nominees the likes of whom the Senate has never seen before,” Gupta signaled the dangerous and long-lasting consequences posed by these lifetime appointments, saying “my children, and probably their children, are now going to reap the seeds of what has been sown the last two years and unfortunately what is likely to continue the next two years.”
Gupta reflected that “the fight for fair courts has not been taken seriously enough” because “we often think about our issues in silos.” She emphasized how The Leadership Conference centers the importance of the foundational structures of democracy because “the fight to preserve the structures of our democracy – like the census, like the courts, like voting rights – are so crucial because everything else we care about, the courts directly have a say-so on.” The implications for civil rights litigators are dire, she added, with many civil rights litigators likely to avoid resorting to the Supreme Court to pursue alternative strategies for reform such as legislative advocacy and passage of state-level ballot initiatives.
“You can’t be a civil rights lawyer and have despair”
Predicting that the next two years will witness the Trump administration successfully filling all vacancies in the federal courts, Smith questioned “what, other than despair, can we do to change the dynamic and hold the Senate accountable.”
“You can’t be a civil rights lawyer and have despair,” Gupta said without missing a beat, adding that civil rights lawyers are almost by definition attorneys who battle against despair. “Hopelessness is an excuse for the privileged, so we don’t have the privilege of being hopeless. We must fight back.”
Gupta described the sweeping losses for civil and human rights witnessed in the past two years, saying “there is a still a deep and profound racism in this country, that has emboldened racism in the corridors of power,” but she rejected hopelessness and complacency outright. She identified the growing power of local and community-based groups organizing for progressive causes as reason for hope.
Sessions’ last act “another slap in the face of the Civil Rights Division”
Smith turned next to the “last act” of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to issue a memorandum that straightjackets the Civil Rights Division’s historic work on police reform by restricting the division’s ability to pursue consent decrees through investigation and prosecution of patterns and practices of police misconduct.
Calling the move “another slap in the face of the Civil Rights Division,” Gupta noted that the memorandum targets the very work that was the major focus of her tenure at the Justice Department. She argued forcefully that the memorandum flies in the face of the statutory mandate given to the agency by Congress in 1994. The memorandum restricts approval of such consent agreements to political appointees, requires evidence of violations beyond unconstitutional behavior, and imposes an arbitrary “sunset” date on such agreements in place of court oversight and proof that the police department or law enforcement agency has improved the very practices governed by the agreement.
Gupta criticized the policy as “demoralizing” to the Justice Department’s career attorneys and “a real blow to civil rights enforcement around the country.” Nevertheless, Gupta found reason for hope, citing that the existing consent decrees previously filed with Article III judges remain in force and cannot be unilaterally revoked. She also lifted up the “extraordinary work” of state attorneys general, local mayors, and police department officials who have stepped into the gap to locally negotiate the measures.
“Despite the gutting of the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement, the good news is there still is a lot of momentum on criminal justice reform, and we need to build on the powerful advocacy locally and at the state level to continue forward,” recommended Gupta.
Ballot access, the census
With a nod to her earlier remarks on the importance of shoring up fundamental structures that preserve American democracy like the federal courts, Gupta turned next to the ongoing battle over ballot access and the census.
Gupta surveys the six ongoing court battles over the Trump administration’s proposed “citizenship question” in the coming census that threatens to systematically undercount communities of color as a result of the chilling effect the change would have on mixed-status families. Gupta described the efforts of The Leadership Conference to unwind the move at the policy level and to increase funding of local efforts to organize for an accurate census count. She exhorted the audience to connect up with The Leadership Conference to get plugged in to local efforts.
Smith’s next question asked Gupta what can be expected form state legislatures around the country with regard to gerrymandering and voter suppression. Citing several state-level ballot initiatives during the midterm election that took the politics out of redistricting with the establishment of independent commissions, Gupta called for similar efforts in other states. She went on to describe the “phenomenal work” of groups such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and The Leadership Conference’s All Voting is Local campaign, which are fighting voter suppression at the local level around the country and pushing for same-day registration and early voting initiatives, but she warned that full ballot access will only be secured with the restoration of the Voting Rights Act and other reforms, like automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and early voting.
With the event drawing to a close, Dean Brittain returned to the podium to preside over a lively question and answer session with the audience covering critical issues such as the nationwide spike in hate crimes, local opportunities in the District to combat voter suppression and protect the census, and the potential for further action to limit or remove judges confirmed to the federal bench.
Dean Brittain concluded the powerful dialogue and led the audience in a round of applause before presenting Gupta with the UDC Law Dean’s Cup in appreciation for her contribution to the law school. He praised Gupta’s “powerful remarks” and seemingly “encyclopedic knowledge” she showed on the issues, calling her “an inspiration.”
Dean Brittain also lauded the “steadfast support of the law school and its critical mission” by Smith, who was UDC Law’s Associate Dean for Clinical Programs before transitioning to become the Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. A catered reception followed, courtesy of the D.C. School of Law Foundation, offering guests an opportunity to speak with Gupta and other members of the UDC Law community.
About Vanita Gupta
Vanita Gupta is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s premier civil and human rights coalition. An experienced leader and litigator who has devoted her entire career to civil rights work, prior to joining The Leadership Conference, Gupta served from 2014 to 2017 as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama. As the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States, Gupta oversaw a wide range of criminal and civil enforcement efforts to ensure equal justice and protect equal opportunity for all during one of the most consequential periods for the division.
Prior to joining the Justice Department, Gupta served as Deputy Legal Director and the Director of the Center for Justice at the ACLU. She began her career as an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Gupta earned her J.D. from the New York University School of Law, where she has also taught a civil rights litigation clinic.
Watch the lecture in its entirety on the UDC-TV YouTube channel.