Public Health Post: This year is the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that, at least nominally, granted all citizens of the United States the right to vote regardless of sex. How do you think that this milestone connects to the landscape of voter suppression today?
Dariely Rodriguez: The 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment provides us an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made and the work that still needs to be done before everyone can exercise their right to vote free from discrimination. Since 1963, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has been at the forefront of securing voting rights for communities of color. March 7 marked the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights advocates, including Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Amelia Boynton Robinson set out to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The marchers didn’t get very far before Alabama state troopers attacked them. The brutal scene was recorded and aired on television, enraging Americans and motivating civil rights and religious leaders to join the protest in Selma. Bloody Sunday and the resulting protests mobilized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was signed by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. Today, communities of color continue to face extensive barriers in exercising their right to vote. Marginalized communities are particularly vulnerable since the 2013 Supreme Court holding in the Shelby County v. Holder case, which weakened Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Since Shelby County, the Lawyers’ Committee has been involved in more than 40 cases relating to voter suppression. Twenty-four of these actions were filed since January 20, 2017—which is 24 more cases than the cases brought by the current administration’s Department of Justice. In addition to deploying litigation throughout the country to challenge voter suppression, we also run a national nonpartisan election protection hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, to ensure all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
We often think of legal questions about discrimination as Constitutional questions that must be answered by the Supreme Court. Can you speak to how lower courts influence law about discrimination?
Courts, including lower district and appellate courts, have been and continue to be at the forefront of securing and protecting civil rights. Under this administration, we have seen a relentless attack on civil rights, immigrant rights and women’s rights and many legal challenges aimed at stopping these rollbacks. In the past few years, our lower courts have repeatedly upheld and protected important rights, such as affirmative action programs in higher education, LGBTQ rights in the workplace and public accommodations, and immigration protections for Dreamers. Yet opponents of progress and equality are successfully strategizing to reshape the federal judiciary by stacking our courts with conservative judges. As more conservative judges get appointed to our federal courts, we run the grave risk of having our civil rights and constitutional liberties undermined.
What does this transition in the courts look like in practice?
In addition to appointing two Supreme Court justices, Trump appointed 50 circuit court nominees during his first three years of office, compared to 55 by Obama during his eight years in office. Currently, over a quarter of current circuit court judges have been appointed by Trump, and he has appointed 133 judges to our district courts. His appointments have dramatically changed our federal judiciary, and have made our courts even less diverse. 78 percent of his nominees have been men, and 86% have been white. We are increasingly seeing instances of leapfrogging where the federal government and other entities are appealing their cases more quickly to circuit courts and the Supreme Court instead of continuing to litigate them in the lower courts in the hopes of getting a favorable outcome.
Less than a month ago, Virginia was the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). As this decision might not hold legal weight, how do you think that the sociocultural significance of changing law measures against the actual legal significance?
Now that Virginia has become the 38th state to ratify the ERA, this Administration’s Department of Justice is trying to block the constitutional amendment by claiming states missed the deadline to ratify. As the #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke has demonstrated, gender inequality persists and in particular for trans women and women of color. Women are still underpaid as compared to men, and still face pervasive harassment and discrimination on the basis of their gender. We have waited too long for equality, and it is incumbent on members of Congress to act now to lift the deadline on ratifying the ERA.
What is the intersection of employment discrimination and health equity discrimination?
Workers of color, and in particular women of color and LGBTQ workers of color are especially vulnerable to workplace discrimination and harassment. Workplace harassment and discrimination have significant and harmful consequences for those impacted. Workers who experience harassment and discrimination experience negative effects on their physical and mental health, their productivity and their career development. Workplace discrimination is also very costly for employers, resulting in low employee morale and increased turnover. A growing body of research shows that for women of color, there is a direct connection between experiencing racism and negative health outcomes, including higher rates of disease and pregnancy complications. This is compounded by the fact that our country does not provide workers paid family and medical leave. Too many American families, particularly families of color, cannot afford to take off several weeks from work to address serious health and caregiving needs. This is why the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law strongly supports the FAMILY Act, which would create a long overdue federal national paid family and medical leave program.
Photo courtesy of Dariely Rodriguez