Women of Color Attorneys

Burning Down Walls of Corruption & Injustice

By C.C. Campbell-Rock

“They dreamed a world where they would use the laws and doctrines of their oppressors to defeat them,” Janai S. Nelson, Esq. told Southern University at New Orleans students. Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., spoke about the “The Social, Political and Legal Relevance of and Challenges to the NAACP-LDF,” at SUNO’s Center for African-American American Studies.

“Brown v. Board of Education ended legal apartheid in this country,” the attorney said in tracing the history of the legal milestones achieved by the NAACP and the NAACP-LDF, an independent non-profit.

Sherrilyn Ifill

Nelson’s position as associate counsel marked the first time the 79 year-old organization has been led by two women. Sherrilyn Ifill is the president and director counsel of the NAACP-LDF.

The NAACP-LDF was founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice. LDF was launched when due process laws were stifled by state-sponsored racial inequality. From then to now, LDF’s mission has been transformative: to achieve racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society.

“The new political landscape and a retrenchment in key areas of civil right poses unprecedented threats to the hard-won gains of the last half century. From new assaults on voting rights, to a renewed push to undermine equal access to quality education, to the reversal of criminal justice and policing reform, we face significant challenges in every area of our work,” the group said in a statement.

NAACP-LDF is currently battling voter suppression, gerrymandering, mass incarceration, educational injustice, police misconduct, a growing incarceration rate among black women, income inequality, environmental racism, and issues like bans on natural hair and locs.

On April 29, 2019, the LDF filed a lawsuit against the Binghamton School District in New York, on behalf of parents whose twelve-year-old daughters were subjected to an illegal strip search. The lawsuit came after the school district failed to rectify the situation, including the refusal to issue an apology for the girls’ shocking mistreatment at the hands of East Middle School’s principal, assistant principal, and school nurse.

On May 3, 2019, the group filed an amicus brief in support of the American Civil Liberties Union’s challenge to Trump’s use of emergency powers to evade congressional funding restrictions.

“The courts must reject any executive authority that allows the President to circumvent the will of Congress. LDF contends that allowing the President to evade the separation of powers would undermine the country’s constitutional structure and leave minority groups particularly vulnerable to the abuse of government power,” the LDF stated. 

However, Nelson and Ifill are not alone on the battlefield for justice and equality. And the NAACP-LDF is not the only organization confronting the Trump Administration and the Trump organization.

Letitia James

The first African-American woman elected to the top cop post for the state of New York, Attorney General Letitia James told supporters during her victory party in November 2018, “I will be shining a bright light into every dark corner of his (Trump’s) real estate dealings, and every dealing, demanding truthfulness at every turn.”

Reiterating her commitment to investigate Trump & Co., James told NBC in December 2018, “We will use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well.”

Keeping her promise, the New York attorney general’s office recently issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank and Investors Bank for records relating to the financing of four major Trump Organization projects and a failed effort to buy the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League in 2014,” according to an NBC News report.

James plans also include probes into the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, government subsidies Trump may have received, alleged insurance fraud, whether Trump is in violation of the emolument’s clause of the U.S. Constitution and the dealings of the now-defunct Trump Foundation.

Additionally, James last week launched an investigation into the National Rifle Association; in the wake of recent reports on the group’s finances. The NRA donated $30 million to Trump’s campaign. Obviously, James plans to follow the money, despite Trump’s verbal attacks on her and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Dr. Angela Allen-Bell

Dr. Angela A. Allen-Bell, a Southern University Law Center associate professor and Director of the Center’s Louis A. Berry Institute for Civil Rights and Justice, is continuing the battle for restorative justice.

A leading legal scholar and researcher, whose work has received national and international attention, Allen-Bell’s seminal research on unanimous juries has led to the eradication of a lynching era law that allowed non-unanimous juries for criminal convictions in Louisiana. Juries in criminal cases generally are required to reach a unanimous verdict, but that was not the case in Louisiana and Oregon before Allen-Bell launched a campaign to restore the pre-Reconstruction practice of unanimous juries.

The fight to overturn this discriminatory practice took off several years ago, when Allen-Bell partnered with Marjorie Esman, then-director of the ACLU of Louisiana, to host the first public forum to discuss the need for a remedy.

According to Allen-Bell’s research: “In 1803, when Louisiana became a territory, unanimous verdicts were required. The change from unanimity was to obtain quick convictions that would funnel people into Louisiana’s newly-created convict leasing system (as a replacement for free slave labor) and ensure African American jurors would not block convictions of other African Americans.”

“We must confront the fact that oppression and supremacy are as fixed in our legal system as monuments of Confederate generals are in the ground. Both undermine social progress and speak to a systemic oppression we must fight collectively to remove,” Bell wrote in “These Jury Decisions are Vestiges of White Supremacy,” a 2017 opinion piece published by the Washington Post.

The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court, in deference to state’s rights, ruled in 1972 that a defendant in a state criminal trial can be convicted even if the jury is not unanimous, presented an uphill battle for Bell and others.

Nonetheless, the restorative justice advocates persisted. They enlisted community support, lobbied state legislators, and petitioned the governor. And in November 2018, Louisianans voted to start requiring unanimity but only for crimes committed in 2019 or later.

Clearly, the passage of this statewide Constitutional Amendment had an impact on the Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider the ruling in the case of Evangelisto Ramos in its next session. Ramos was found guilty of second degree murder in 2016, by 10 of 12 jurors and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Racism, oppression and discrimination are sustained not only by humans, but also by laws, policies and systems. Emancipation was not just about physical freedom. The Civil Rights Movement was not just about physical presence. The struggle has always been about social, legal and political equality,” Dr. Allen-Bell commented.

The struggle continued last week when two women attorneys threw verbal firebombs at U.S. Attorney William Barr for his handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.

Former prosecutor and presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris used her expert cross-examination skills on Barr, and he was gob-smacked.

Harris, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Barr “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested you open an investigation into anyone?” After asking her to repeat the question (clearly a delay tactic), Barr, who looked like a deer caught in the headlights, filibustered and claimed to be “struggling with the word suggest.”

Harris also got Barr to admit that he hadn’t read the underlying evidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report, before summarizing Mueller’s conclusions.

Harris last Friday sent a letter  to Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) inspector general, asking his office to investigate whether Barr was asked or pressured by Trump to open criminal investigations into others.

She wrote that she was “gravely concerned” about the  “independence” of AG William Barr.

Harris’s line of questioning caused Trump to call her a “nasty woman.”

U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) is also an attorney. She is the first elected female senator from Hawaii, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate and the first U.S. senator born in Japan. Hirono lit Barr up during her round of questioning.

“The American people know you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway, or any of the other people who sacrificed their once decent reputations for the liar and grifter who sits in the Oval Office,” Hirono told Barr.

In her closing remarks, Hirono called Barr a liar and asked him to resign. “Finally, you lied to Congress. You told Rep. Charlie Crist that you didn’t know what objections Mueller’s team might have to the March 24 so-called summary. You told Sen. Chris Van Hollen you didn’t know if Robert Mueller supported your conclusions — but you knew you lied, and now we know.”

Hirono and 11 other senators later wrote a letter requesting a Department of Justice (DOJ) Investigation of Attorney General William Barr’s conduct, while handling Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and report.

Of course, the letter is largely symbolic. No one expects Barr, who heads the DOJ, to call for an investigation into himself.

One can, however, expect Hirono, Harris, James, Allen-Bell, Ifill, Nelson, and other women attorneys to continue the fight for justice and to vocally and legally call out all who support and/or promulgate injustice.

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