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A Focus on Modern-Day Civil Rights

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Attorney and advocate Vanita Gupta joins Q&A spanning her democracy work

By Anne Bergman

Gould's Dean Andrew Guzman introduced the discussion featuring Vanita Gupta and Prof. Rebecca Brown.

Vanita Gupta makes news and intends to change history.

Gupta, the influential president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, appears frequently on MSNBC in the pages of the New York Times and on deep-dive law podcasts. She also testifies before Congress and galvanizes support for issues ranging from criminal justice reform to judicial nominations.

On Feb. 25, she appeared at the USC Gould School of Law, as the featured guest in a talk on “Modern Day Civil Rights in America,” as part of the annual Allen Neiman & Alan Sieroty Lecture series.

The event showcased Gupta, who was appointed by President Obama in 2014 to head the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, in conversation with Prof. Rebecca Brown, a nationally recognized constitutional law theorist.

Defending Democracy

In a discussion on what Gupta calls “democracy work” – which spanned the 2020 census, voting rights and gerrymandering – the civil rights advocate offered insights into how she approaches her strategy as the leader of the nation’s oldest civil rights coalition, an organization that traces its roots to the 1950s.


At the top of Gupta’s agenda is H.R. 1, a.k.a the “For the People Act,” which Gupta describes as the “the North Star of democracy reform.” The bill aims to“expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics and strengthen ethics rules for public servants.” Gupta’s organization is actively advocating for the bill’s passage, with Gupta having testified to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary in January.

Yet Gupta lamented how even fundamental voting rights are considered a partisan issue, sharing as an example the backlash against a proposal to make Election Day a federal holiday.

Brown asked Gupta what she uses to guide her in this volatile political climate. Gupta replied that she relies on the U.S. Constitution. “The Constitution remains the crucial organizing document that drives us to do what we do,” she said. “It’s up to us to reclaim it as it is vital to our democracy.”

Among the issues on Gupta’s agenda, include gerrymandering and the push for independent redistricting commissions. “It should be about voters choosing their politicians, rather than politicians choosing their voters,” she explained. 

She also highlighted the areas of criminal justice and police reform as having “tremendous momentum.” 

“States around the country are pushing for more humane sentencing policies, such as bail reform and the end to mass incarceration,” Gupta said.

Positive Focus on the Future

Gupta took time after the discussion to meet with Gould students.

Gupta struck a hopeful note as she described how heartened she is by those who headed to airports in early 2017 – to protest the executive order banning foreign travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries – and offer assistance to those impacted. “The people who were demonstrating looked like everyone because so many of us felt that core American values were at stake,” she said.

Brown noted how Gould students and faculty are helping immigrants who are seeking asylum, including work through the school’s clinics.

Gupta agreed that law school and immigration clinic students are “on the front lines of providing assistance. Congress needs to provide the solutions, but local communities are filling the void,” she said.

Gupta was asked what she seeks when she’s hiring an attorney to join her organization. “The most important quality I’m looking for is an authentic narrative to tell about their experience,” she said. “For instance, I didn’t do a clerkship, but I got to litigate in my first year in law school, which was a valuable experience. I advise students to take clinic courses, but there really isn’t one golden path. Above all, find work that is meaningful for you.”

The Neiman Sieroty Lecture Series, endowed by Alan Sieroty JD ’56 and named for Sieroty and his classmate Allen Neiman JD ’56, focuses on civil liberties issues. 



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