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"Director's Report - The Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law,"

by Thomas J. Henderson November/December 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (the “Committee”) was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The primary mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law. The Committee’s objective is to utilize the skills and resources of the private bar to obtain equal opportunity for minorities by addressing factors that contribute to racial justice and economic opportunity. Given our nation’s history of racial discrimination, de jure segregation, and the de facto inequities that persist, the Committee’s primary focus is to represent the interests of African-Americans in particular, other racial and ethnic minorities, and other victims of discrimination, where doing so can help secure justice for all racial and ethnic minorities.

Education Project

Our work in the area of educational equity includes litigation, policy advocacy, collaboration with educators and social scientists, and providing information and support for parent and community advocacy. Our areas of focus include challenging segregation and inequality in K-12 schooling (including curriculum and instruction, student discipline and resources), inequalities in instruction and the outcomes of student testing, the effects of inequalities in K-12 instruction and disparities in higher education, and defending race-conscious measures in higher education.

The Committee has secured relief to eliminate inequalities in curriculum and instruction in two school desegregation cases on behalf of African American and Hispanic students. Last year, we succeeded in resisting a school district’s motion for a declaration of “unitary status”due to the need for further curricular reform. The Committee is pursuing a new desegregation case challenging segregation and inequality in instruction, as well as discrimination in discipline and other school policies, in a Georgia school district.

The Committee has recently filed amicus briefs in cases challenging the use of race-conscious measures in higher education in Georgia and Michigan, and assisted with litigation to resist the elimination of such measures in Florida. We are evaluating affirmative strategies to establish the need for and secure remedial race-conscious measures in higher education in Florida and Georgia, including through examination of the effects of systemic inequalities in K-12 education on the opportunity of minority students to qualify for and attend state colleges and universities.

We are also working with parent and community groups in their efforts to advocate for non-discriminatory school environments and student discipline policies. This includes technical assistance, examination of non-discriminatory models, and supporting parent advocacy. The Committee is also exploring the relationship between school discipline and the over-representation of minority children in the criminal justice system, and strategies to address the effects of discriminatory school policies on entrance into the juvenile justice system.

Environmental Justice Project

Our environmental justice work includes litigation, policy advocacy, and collaboration with community advocates to address discrimination and its effects in the exposure of African American, Hispanic and Native American communities to contamination and pollution that threatens their health and safety. Our areas of focus include opposing discrimination in environmental clean-up plans and the siting and permitting of facilities, challenging patterns of segregation that expose minority communities to adverse environmental conditions, enforcing environmental and related laws to protect communities of color, securing access to justice in relation to environmental decision-making, and advocating for equitable and effective enforcement policies.

This summer, the last residents of a segregated public housing project originally sited next to a foundry, and on what was later a Superfund site, were relocated to housing in racially integrated areas free of environmental hazards. This result was obtained through the settlement of a Committee suit against the EPA, local government officials, and the corporate owner of the adjacent site. The case challenged as discriminatory and perpetuating de jure segregation a Superfund clean-up plan which would have left the housing project in place in Portsmouth, Virginia. The relocation of a community located in Pensacola, Florida, continues as a result of EPA’s change in a similar clean-up plan, obtained through advocacy short of a lawsuit. The Committee recently submitted extensive comments to EPA advocating a proposed change in its policies regarding the use of relocation in Superfund remedial plans, including an empirical analysis of apparent discrimination in the inclusion of relocation in past Superfund plans.

The Committee is also litigating against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and private corporations to enforce protections on the use of tribal lands against an unlicensed petroleum waste facility on behalf of members of the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians in Anza, California. The Committee recently submitted amicus briefs supporting the court’s application of Title VI effects regulations in enjoining the permitting of a facility in Camden, New Jersey. Last year, the Committee submitted extensive comments urging more effective civil rights enforcement decisions in response to the EPA’s proposed guidance on the application of Title VI to permitting decisions.

We are also preparing several suits against local governments to challenge patterns of housing segregation and discriminatory zoning and land use that have resulted in African Americans living in communities with both operating and abandoned industrial, commercial and waste disposal facilities which adversely effect the environment and their health. We are also assisting a Latino community in a Southwestern city advocate for relocation in the face of past and future environmental effects of the expansion of the city airport.

In addition, the Committee is engaged in collaborative efforts with communities to enhance and support their advocacy. This work includes technical assistance with respect to the substance and process of environmental laws, collecting data, securing scientific and technical expertise in analyzing environmental conditions, and support for effective community advocacy. We are planning several community information and strategy sessions with community and environmental partners to be held in Georgia and other locations.

Employment Discrimination Project

In the area of employment discrimination, our work includes litigation, policy advocacy – particularly with respect to the federal enforcement agencies – and support and training in employment discrimination law and practice. The focus of our employment work includes challenging disparate impact discrimination in testing and other hiring and promotional devices, racial harassment and hostile work environments, opposing mandatory arbitration systems that deprive employees of access to the courts and complete remedies, and defending race-conscious remedies.

The Committee has a number of cases in which testing and similar barriers to the employment or promotion of African Americans and Hispanics have been eliminated, including in Texas, New York and New Jersey. We have succeeded in obtaining class-wide damages for racial harassment in plants in New York and Alabama. We continue to pursue litigation of this type, often on behalf of public employees.

We also are engaged in the defense of race-conscious remedies for employment discrimination throughout the country. Many remedies for proven discrimination are coming under attack in recent years and we are succeeding in defending those remedies from “reverse discrimination” challenges. We are litigating these issues in Mississippi, Texas, New York, Boston, and elsewhere. In addition, we continue to oppose efforts to deny access to the courts for employees who have suffered discrimination, through mandatory arbitration agreements. We have filed a number of amicus briefs in the Supreme Court and lower courts opposing the application of these agreements to civil rights claims. In South Carolina, we successfully challenged such agreements as unlawful, resulting in the employer abandoning them.

We are developing a focus on the relationship between welfare reform and employment, including the availability of employment for those whose public assistance will end due to welfare reform, and examining the employment practices of industries that should provide a source of employment. In addition, we are developing strategies to address the effects of housing segregation and access to employment.

Housing and Community Development Project

The Committee undertakes fair housing, fair lending and housing desegregation litigation, challenges discriminatory governmental action relating to housing, land use and community development, advocates for regulatory and policy changes on behalf of communities, seeks increased resources for communities and provides transactional legal assistance to non-profit organizations in minority communities.

The precedent-setting case involving the relocation of residents of a predominately Black public housing project on a Superfund site noted above, was a joint effort of the Housing and Environmental Justice Projects. Using legal strategies developed to desegregate public housing, the Committee was able to obtain remedies for environmental discrimination. This settlement marked the first time that an existing Superfund cleanup plan was altered to address claims of racial discrimination in the location and maintenance of public housing in an area of environmental contamination.

The Committee also has successfully achieved public housing desegregation remedies in Allegheny County, PA, and Miami-Dade County, FL, and is prosecuting a new case regarding public housing in Blakely, GA. In September, we began a two-year initiative for the protection of public housing residents living in developments undergoing demolition or redevelopment under the federally funded HOPE VI program. In addition, we provide comments on public housing regulations and participate in policy development discussions with HUD and other governmental and private organizations.

In other litigation, we are representing residents of a project-based Section 8 development who were harassed and discriminated against based on their race. Our representation of minorities in the private rental market includes cases of refusal to rent to minorities and failure to maintain property to which immigrants have been steered.

In the area of community development, we are working to develop innovative remedies and other economic mechanisms for disadvantaged people to improve their communities. Our goal is to provide guidance and self-empowerment skills to community development corporations (CDCs) operating in and serving minority communities. We also represent CDCs which have been discriminated against in the receipt of development funds, including discrimination claims against the City of Miami for actions taken against a Puerto Rican CDC.

Our policy initiatives include advocacy in policy making debates, including HUD’s oversight of housing authorities, comments on proposed regulations relating to public housing de-concentration and operations, commenting on banking regulations affecting fair lending policies and practices, and proposed regulations relating to sexual harassment under the Fair Housing Act.

Voting Rights Project

In light of the adverse effects of electoral practices on racial minorities made clear in the 2000 presidential election, the Committee, in conjunction with other civil rights organizations, has turned its attention to the disenfranchisement of African Americans, particularly in Florida. Despite the fact that African Americans turned out to vote in record numbers, wide-ranging voting irregularities were experienced by people of color in Florida and other states across the nation. The Committee is litigating the use of punchcard ballots, voter roll purges, voter registration and voting precinct practices in Florida, and is investigating such cases in other jurisdictions. Together with other civil rights groups, the Committee has staffed election hotlines to provide information and legal assistance, if necessary, to respond to irregularities.

The Committee, along with the Brennan Center for Justice, has filed suit seeking to overturn the constitutional and statutory provisions in Florida which prevent ex felons from voting. We are researching felon disenfranchisement provisions in other states. In addition, the Committee continues to litigate vote dilution cases seeking majority-minority districts, and is developing strategies to seek alternative election practices that would prevent minority voting from being submerged.

The Voting Rights Project is assisting communities in the redistricting process at the congressional, state and local levels, and if necessary, in creating new plans that will promote equality and fairness for all voters. The Committee also has defended legislative districting plans across the nation which have expanded the ability of Blacks and Hispanics to elect candidates of their choice, and anticipates both defending plans that empower minority communities and litigating where plans dilute minority votes.

Other Initiatives

The Committee has developed a new strategy towards public policy advocacy. Working with Board members and other civil rights organizations, our goal is to address public policy issues which fall within the parameters of our longstanding mission. In addition to the policy advocacy identified above, the Committee has devoted significant effort to seeking a death penalty moratorium at the federal and state level, passage of more effective federal hate crimes legislation, civil rights involvement in the judicial independence movement, preserving and defending affirmative action, researching and advocating against limitations on the power of Congress, and adopting and extending international human rights law.

The Committee began its Judicial Independence and Access to the Courts project in 1999, seeking to engage the civil rights community with the growing number of national and state judicial independence groups in advancing the mutually beneficial goal of an independent and balanced judiciary. The Committee has sponsored briefings and discussions to identify the civil rights concerns on this issue and presented a paper toward building a strategy that advances civil rights interests in the struggle to preserve an independent judiciary. Advancing these interests in the immediate context of federal judicial nominations has also been a focus of the Committee, in both the former and current Administration and Congress. As well, fighting to preserve effective access to the courts has involved the Committee in efforts to oppose changes in federal procedural rules and legislative and judicial restrictions on the authority and reach of the courts that threaten the ability of victims of discrimination to prove their case and obtain judicial relief.

In response to increasing efforts to turn back the tide on affirmative action, the Committee has continued playing an active role in ensuring that this remedy remains available through litigation, amicus briefs, public policy advocacy and efforts to inform and raise public awareness on the issue. In particular, the Committee co-sponsored a discussion among affirmative action litigators last year, and participates with other civil rights groups in the public education efforts of American for a Fair Chance.

Concerned with an increasing number of Supreme Court decisions that are restricting the power of Congress to enact and enforce civil rights legislation, particularly as to states, the Committee has undertaken extensive research on these constitutional issues, has filed amicus briefs and is preparing analysis and briefing papers with which to inform Congress, interested constituencies and the public of the “constitutional counter-revolution” that threatens the underpinnings of civil rights legislation, New Deal social programs, and national economic regulation.

Recently, we have also turned our attention to international instruments and efforts to eliminate racial discrimination and to improve the lives of people of color and women on a global scale. Toward that end, Lawyers’ Committee Board and staff participated in international preparatory conferences of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and governments and attended the UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), in Durban, South Africa in August and September 2001. In addition, the Committee prepared a report responding to the U.S. report on implementation of the United Nations Convention to Eliminate Racial Discrimination (CERD), a proposed plan of action to implement CERD, and a survey of anti-discrimination efforts by nations around the world. Further, we co-sponsored a preparatory conference for U.S. NGOs and a workshop at the World Conference on national anti-discrimination legislation. We hope to continue and extend our efforts by advocating that the U.S. adopt international standards and efforts and in cooperating with international human rights partners.

Thomas J. Henderson is Deputy Director, with the Environmental Justice Project, all of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 1450 G St. NW, #400, Washington, DC 20005, 202/662-8330.
The case, In the Matter of Louisiana Energy Services, LP (Claiborne Enrichment Center): Docket No. 70-3070, has been argued before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. The NRC has not yet made a final decision whether to accept the Environmental Impact Statement and issue a permit.

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