Panel Confronts Enforcement of Civil Rights

Kimberly Hopkin '19
Columns Editor


A panel on “Enforcing Civil Rights under the Trump Administration” brought four civil rights and diversity-focused attorneys together on Friday, September 15 to respond to the August 12 Charlottesville rallies and to discuss how lawyers can continue to work towards a more progressive America. This panel was supported by multiple UVa student groups including Lambda Law Alliance, Black Law Students Association, Jewish Law Students Association, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, Latin American Law Organization, and the American Constitution Society, and by Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.  Lambda Law Alliance President, Raphaelle Debenedetti, opened the panel by broadening the scope of the discussion from the events of August 12, in which white supremacist protestors violently clashed with counter-protestors in Emancipation Park resulting in the death of Heather Heyer, to the larger issue of ensuring equal protection under the law for all minorities.

Stuart Delery, a litigation partner at the D.C. office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, started by reviewing the history of Confederate statues within the broader history of Jim Crow laws and the judicial system’s unwillingness to help the disenfranchised. Putting forward a theory that exclusion of black Americans from the political process in the late 19th century followed a progressive pattern of violence, restrictive voting laws, and a lack of federal enforcement of equal protection, Mr. Delery noted that current events echoed history too much.  As a former Acting Associate Attorney General in the Department of Justice under the Obama administration, Mr. Delery brought an informed perspective on the obligation to build federal judicial policy that will appropriately and vigorously protect minorities. In his opinion, the Trump administration has started a wholesale retreat from this responsibility. He cited the Arpaio pardon, withdrawal of transgender rights in schools, and restrictive voting laws. While acknowledging the allure of believing that we have no more work to do, Mr. Delery closed by urging students to push for a more perfect union and to remember that current events cannot be separated from the past. 

Chantale Fiebig, of counsel at the D.C. office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, brought a uniquely personal viewpoint to the discussion by sharing her experiences as an African American attending UVa as an undergraduate. Born in Central Africa, Ms. Fiebig shared her African mother’s disbelief upon learning about the enslavement and subsequent disenfranchisement of black Americans when they first moved to the United States. Ms. Fiebig felt disconnected from the weight other black Americans had to bear until she attended UVa. During an orientation event, she recalled how the university played country rock music on the front lawn and rap music on the back lawn promoting a de facto segregation of students. To this day, she wonders why they couldn’t just “turn off the music, and let people talk.”  During her first experience at a protest, Ms. Fiebig recalls being marginalized by another student insisting that the protestors were protesting being black by wearing black; they were actually protesting a homophobic line in “The Good Ole Song.” She denounced those who hide behind excuses of history and tradition because they often fail to see that the history itself is what feels so oppressive. To fight against this, Ms. Fiebig advises lawyers to stay vigilant and to “choose kindness.” When discussing career options, she reminded the audience that private sector lawyers still have opportunities to contribute through pro bono work and choosing to take civil rights cases. 

Angela Ciolfi, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at the Legal Aid Justice Center and UVa Law alumna, addressed what the August 12 rally meant and what it changes. Ms. Ciolfi contended that it may have started a discussion, but that racism was present before and is still present today. Citing multiple statistics, including the fact that black Americans are stopped and frisked by police nine times more often than white Americans and that 0.04 percent of government contracts in the local area go to female, veteran, or minority owned companies, Ms. Ciolfi challenged the audience to seek structural change at the state level. Although charity and passion are important, she implored the audience to understand the need for a strategy when confronting systemic injustice. Ms. Ciolfi also reminded the audience that change is not about politics; it’s about reaching across the spectrum to build the right policies. 

The final panelist, James Hingeley, a public defender for Albemarle County and elected member of the executive committee of the Ablemarle-Charlottesville NAACP, started his remarks by commemorating the 67th anniversary of Gregory Swanson enrolling as the first African-American UVa Law student. After recounting the UVa Law faculty’s unanimous support through Swanson’s court battle, Mr. Hingeley called Mr. Swanson a hero and urged the audience to remember his legacy. Then, Mr. Hingeley pivoted his speech towards the August 12 rally and the ways the legal system could have been used to procure a better outcome. Following the July 8 protest, Charlottesville was inundated with requests to silence the white supremacist group by denying their protesting permit. Recognizing the hateful message this group perpetuated, Mr. Hingeley said the city did a poor job of communicating to its citizens that the First Amendment still allowed this speech. Rather than even insisting it was a negative consequence, Mr. Hingeley urged the audience to understand and celebrate the power of the First Amendment in combatting inequality. He felt that focusing on the expression the white supremacist groups would espouse instead of the high amount of violent threats leading up to the August 12 rally was the reason the city was enjoined from moving the protest to an area that could have been controlled better. For this reason, he pushed the importance of communicating and giving weight to the proper arguments in this type of legal work. He urged the audience to use non-violent tactics and celebrate the First Amendment even when it seems like an assault on our values.