For Martin Gold, a pro bono lobbying effort of 1,000 hours started with a single lunch. The senior counsel in Covington & Burling’s Washington office was dining in 2009 with acquaintances in China. They mentioned that California had finally formally apologized for decades of legal discrimination against Chinese-Americans.
Gold looked into it, and to his disappointment discovered that Congress had yet to do the same for a series of federal measures between 1879 and 1904 that restricted Chinese immigration and naturalization. He decided to use his years of experience as a lobbyist to change that.
The matter struck a personal chord for the 65-year-old Gold. He had been close to his grandfather, a Russian immigrant who learned English at night to gain American citizenship. A Chinese immigrant would have been denied the same opportunity before the laws finally were repealed in 1943.
Gold knew it wouldn’t be easy. Congress has rarely voted to apologize for discrimination against racial or ethnic groups, and lawmakers were preoccupied with the troubled economy. An objection from a single legislator, for any reason, could derail the entire effort. But Covington came down strongly for the effort, contributing 3,000 hours of attorney and staff time, including 1,000 hours by Gold. He read every page of the original debates, mining details that would help define this as a civil rights principle (instead of a politically sensitive immigration issue). Associates Elizabeth Bell and Erica Lai assisted with the research.
Gold formed a coalition of Asian-American groups called the 1882 Project, after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which denied naturalization to Chinese immigrants. He held video teleconferences with the group to pass along what he had learned, so they could better lobby their members of Congress. The resolution of regret cleared the Senate in October 2011 and the House in June 2012. The effort was worth it, Gold said, “to have Congress look back on a chapter in history for which it was wholly responsible and make a value judgment about it, that it was wrong.”
Covington threw its skills into a wide range of pro bono efforts last year. For example, its attorneys advised Marylanders for Marriage Equality in winning voter approval for same-sex marriage in November 2012. “Covington should be incredibly proud of the work that you folks have done to make marriage equality possible in Maryland,” Human Rights Campaign general counsel Rob Falk wrote the firm following the vote.