Just after graduating from New York University School of Law in 2001, Vanita Gupta saw a brief documentary about the arrest on drug charges of 38 African-Americans in a single day in a small town in Texas. Gupta, then a Soros Justice fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, was inspired. “I thought, this is crazy, this is exactly the kind the kind of case [the fund] should be investigating,” she said. Soon after she flew to Texas and began digging through the court files, where she found that all of the cases were based solely on inconsistent testimony from a single white undercover officer. After the first seven defendants received sentences of between 40 and 300 years, other defendants had begun to plea. Thus began a legal effort that would make Tulia, Texas, synonymous with racial injustice, draw front-page coverage in The New York Times and leave Gupta coordinating a legal effort involving pro bono partners from major law firms. Two years later her effort was vindicated when Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 defendants.
It wouldn’t be her last crusade. After moving to the American Civil Liberties Union, Gupta got word of an effort by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain families, including children, in prison-like conditions for civil immigration violations. The people were held at a converted medium-security prison in Texas, made to wear prison garb and not allowed outside for weeks at a time. ICE, which had hired a private corrections company to run the prison, eventually settled in 2007, and has since ended the pilot program creating family detention centers. Gupta, 36, now oversees the ACLU’s death penalty, prison and criminal law reform efforts. “These really are the issues that drove me to be a lawyer in the first place, so I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I wanted to do.” — Jason McLure