Recent weeks have brought several déjà vu moments for Barbara Arnwine and for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which she has led as president since 1989.
There was the August 1 White House reception hosted by President Barack Obama marking the committee's 50th anniversary, held in the same East Room where President John F. Kennedy in effect launched the committee in 1963 after asking the rhetorical question, "Where are all the lawyers?" in the growing fight for civil rights.
It was an exciting moment with "symbolic meaning," Arnwine said, underscoring the committee's staying power after 50 years of enlisting volunteer lawyers from law firms and corporate law departments for civil rights litigation and advocacy. The audience included a handful of lawyers who had been there 50 years ago, as well as current-day bar leaders who embrace the committee's work.
But earlier in the same week there was another meeting with less happy reminders of the committee's early days. Arnwine attended a July 29 White House meeting summoned to discuss the response to the Supreme Court's June ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which in her view undid much of the progress made since the 1960s in expanding voting rights for minorities.
Arnwine said her committee is committed to pushing new legislation in Congress and in the states and seeking new legal strategies to restore the power of the Voting Rights Act. And she is philosophical about having to renew a battle that seemed to have been won after numerous renewals by Congress of the Voting Rights Act.
"It's the nature of the beast," she said in an interview at the committee's Washington, D.C. office. "Progress in civil rights history has never been linear, a straight path of progress. You have a zig and then a zag, and now you have a zig and a zag at the same time." She was referring to the re-election of the first African-American president, along with the Supreme Court turning the clock back on voting rights.
Why did the Supreme Court take such a zag? Arnwine blamed "the leadership of Chief Justice Roberts." When Roberts was nominated as chief justice in 2005, Arnwine expressed concern about Roberts' stated views on voting rights while serving in the U.S. Justice Department in the 1980s. "He showed extreme hostility then, and he was fulfilling a lifelong quest," Arnwine said. "Four members of the court joined him."
What bothered her most about Roberts' majority opinion was that while pointing to changed conditions and expanded minority voting, "there was not one word about the extensive voter suppression of the last two years." The committee had sounded an early warning before last year's election about efforts in numerous states to restrict voting, releasing a "map of shame" highlighting legislative and other moves it said were aimed at suppressing minority votes.
The high court's ruling was a reminder that, even in this day and age, African-Americans and other minorities can also be described as "precarious Americans," in Arnwine's words—subject to discrimination and restrictions without warning.
"You can live life like everybody else, and then all of a sudden you get slapped in the face," she said. Arnwine recounted how she was recently pulled aside for an extra search by a TSA agent at a New York City airport, while whites around her were allowed to go through. She praised President Obama for telling about his own experiences with racial profiling as a young man, in the context of the national debate over the death of Trayvon Martin.
But Arwine said the push for voting rights and against discrimination can't be extinguished by the Supreme Court or anyone else. "I had many people tell me after that ruling that they were so depressed, they couldn't get out of bed," she said. "I told them to get up out the bed."
Arnwine said the committee will continue to work with election protection efforts and in the courts in spite of the Shelby County decision, though she allowed that "we'll have to be smart and strategic about what we bring to the Supreme Court."
And she expects the committee will have a higher profile in the coming fight, in part because so many young lawyers, savvy about public engagement and social media, are coming to the committee as volunteers. When the committee started 50 years ago, "lawyers felt it was unseemly to go around tooting your horn," she said. "Now, it's about the ability of people to feel connected."
Jane Sherburne, co-chair of the committee, also predicts a strong role for the committee in years ahead. Asked if lawyers are still volunteering to help in the committee's work, Sherburne said, "It's stronger than ever." Sherburne, general counsel and corporate secretary of BNY Mellon in New York, said that last year, lawyers in chapters around the country contributed 90,000 hours of pro bono work to the committee, with a value of $47 million.
In her speech at the Aug. 1 White House event, Sherburne reflected on the committee's half century of steady work toward justice.
"We are proud to be here today to recognize the contributions we have made toward improving the lives of millions of Americans and to rededicate ourselves to securing equal justice for all through the rule of law," she said. Addressing Obama, she added, "Mr. President, should you repeat President Kennedy’s question: Where are all the lawyers? Our answer is: right here, Mr. President, right here."
Contact Tony Mauro at email@example.com.