Eric Hellerman of Covington & Burling.
Eric Hellerman of Covington & Burling. ()

In late 2008, lawyers challenging the New York Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” policy turned to Covington & Burling for help. They claimed victory nearly five years later. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in August found the city liable for violating the constitutional rights of the city’s black and Hispanic residents (the city has since appealed).

“This was a racial injustice that cried out for judicial remedy,” Covington of counsel Eric Hellerman said.

In 2012, nearly 90 percent of New Yorkers who were stopped and frisked were innocent, with blacks and Latinos making up 87 percent of those detained, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. The Center for Constitutional Rights and New York’s Beldock Levine & Hoffman filed the initial lawsuit, Floyd v. The City of New York, in January 2008. The center asked Covington to join the case later that year, Hellerman said.

Center legal director Baher Azmy arrived after Covington got involved, but suggested the firm was tapped because of its “excellent reputation.” Covington had worked with the center since 2004 on litigation concerning Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detainees.

The plaintiffs scored a series of preliminary victories, including certifying a class — overcoming the more rigorous standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011′s Wal-Mart v. Dukes. Covington was involved at every step, Hellerman said, with at least three associates working full-time or close to full-time on the case at any given time under his supervision. “It was a pure professional privilege for me to work with these associates who did so much at the trial and to see them progress from junior associates into trial lawyers,” Hellerman said.

Azmy said Covington played an integral role in securing Scheindlin’s ruling. “They understood deeply the importance of this case,” he said. In an unexpected turn of events, after Scheindlin’s ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit removed her from the case, citing concerns about comments she made to reporters. In the meantime, the city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has decried stop-and-frisk and called for reform. A spokeswoman for the New York City Law Department declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.