Three federal judges who have fought to advance civil rights in their careers shared their perspectives on what must be done to protect voting rights and combat racial bias in the criminal justice system.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — As Black History Month draws to a close, three distinguished federal judges on Thursday reflected on their efforts to fight racial injustice and what they think should be done to advance civil rights in the 21st century.
U.S. District Judges William Alsup and William Orrick III, joined by retired U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, shared their perspectives on the struggle for racial equality during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Federal Bar Association’s Northern District of California Chapter.
All three jurists worked to combat racial discrimination early in their careers. Henderson was the first Black lawyer to join the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division in 1962, where he worked to enforce voting rights in the Deep South. Alsup, a Mississippi native, fought to change racist policies at his university as a college student in the 1960s. And Orrick, as a young lawyer in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, spent five years providing legal assistance to underserved communities in Georgia.
After toiling to protect voting rights at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Henderson expressed frustration with recent events that appear to show regression in progress made with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We should safeguard those rights in the same manner that we safeguard and protect the nation’s gold bullion in Fort Knox,” Henderson said.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act in 5-4 vote, allowing states with histories of racial discrimination to enact new voting laws without advanced approval from the federal government.
Judge Alsup called the Voting Rights Act a “milestone” that created a mechanism for enforcing voting rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment in 1870.
“In my own view, we ought to restore that,” Alsup said, adding that he found it “heartbreaking” to see Black citizens waiting in long lines to vote in Georgia during the most recent election.
“We should not tolerate that kind of burden on the right to vote,” he said.
Henderson recalled a time when he was working for the Justice Department in Birmingham, Alabama, in the early 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to town to protest segregationist policies, and children joined him in a peaceful march. Henderson said he was touched by the willingness of those young people to risk harsh treatment and jailtime to fight for justice.
“I’ve never forgotten that bravery,” Henderson said. “When I have something tough to do and think of that, I’m better able to face it.”
Witnessing young people put their safety on the line to fight injustice also changed the way Alsup viewed his country, the judge said Thursday. Alsup, a white man who grew up in Mississippi with pro-segregation parents, said seeing images on television of Birmingham police blasting peaceful protesters with water hoses and attacking them with cattle prods in the spring of 1963 changed his opinions about race in America.
“That was awful,” Alsup said. “I didn’t want to be associated with the people who were doing those awful things to the protesters.”
Later that year, the Ku Klux Klan blew up a Baptist church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four young girls and permanently injuring another.
“That was a turning point for America and part of the turning point for me,” Alsup said. “Nineteen-sixty-three stands out for me as a year that caused me to reflect on what is right and just in America and what is fair and decent.”
A few years later, as a senior at Mississippi State University, Alsup would fight to bring a Black speaker to his traditionally all-white campus, despite state regulations that barred non-white people from giving speeches. Alsup helped organize a protest and threatened to sue the state of Mississippi after the college rejected his request to let Aaron Henry, then-president of the Mississippi NAACP, speak to students on campus.
After Alsup wrote a letter explaining why he intended to file a lawsuit over the school’s decision, the college’s board of trustees “backed down” and allowed Henry to speak.
“It was a great moment for the First Amendment, and that’s what I look back on with some pride,” Alsup said.
As a young lawyer, Orrick traveled to Savanah, Georgia, in 1979, where he worked for a legal aid office helping underserved communities for five years. At the time, a group of Black residents from Garden City, then a rural suburb of Savanah, were given no notice that their neighborhood had been rezoned as commercial and an industrial development was about to be built in their community.
“The industrial development was going to ruin their neighborhood,” Orrick said.
The young lawyer worked with residents to fight the project at a series of planning commission meetings. They packed the chamber at a final approval hearing, and the decision to rezone the neighborhood was reversed. At the time, the neighborhood had no paved roads or sewage services.
“Within a year and a half the city had gotten money to pave all the streets, put sewage in, put street lights down there, and that community has thrived,” Orrick said.
The judge noted that Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black person and woman to hold that role, gave a speech in Garden City on Jan. 3 this year, two days before a special election in which Georgia elected its first Black U.S. senator.
The judges also addressed issues of systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Judge Orrick oversees the Oakland Police Department’s compliance with a 2003 civil rights settlement, a case he inherited from Judge Henderson when he retired in 2017. Both judges have extended court oversight for the department due to its failure to achieve certain milestones for reform.
Henderson said his years of experience judging civil rights cases against police departments taught him that “there is no accountability for policemen.” California’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights provides strong protections for officers accused of misconduct. Those who are found to have violated a citizen’s rights typically face no practical legal or financial consequences, Henderson lamented.
“The police won’t pay a dollar,” Henderson said. “The taxpayers will pay it.”
Alsup said he would like to see stronger rights for victims of police brutality. Many families seeking basic information about how their loved ones were killed in interactions with police usually have to hire a lawyer and go to court to obtain information, he said.
“The family should be allowed to learn how their loved one died and have access to all that information,” Alsup said.
The Mississippi-born judge also suggested that Congress could empower the Justice Department to make police departments enact certain reforms to receive federal funding. Those reforms could include banning knee-choke holds, mandating de-escalation training and requiring body cameras stay on and record all interactions with the public.
The judges ended their discussion with a sense of hope that the U.S. will make progress in addressing the seemingly intractable problem of bigotry. On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a bill that could extend federal civil rights protections to gay and transgender people if approved by the Senate.
“I think there’s everything to be optimistic and hopeful for, but it requires all of us to be doing this hard and important work,” Orrick said.