The University Record, January 22, 2001

Voting rights, racial profiling, affirmative action take center stage at Law School panel discussion

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2001: Commitment and Renewal

By Nancy L. Kuharevicz

From left to right, Michael A. Rodriguez, legislative staff attorney in the Chicago office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and federal judges Algenon Marbley and Denise Page Hood conduct a panel discussion on civil rights Jan. 15 in Hutchins Hall. Photo by Marcia L. Ledford, U-M Photo Services
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, racial profiling and affirmative action in education were scrutinized during a panel discussion held Jan. 15 in Hutchins Hall as part of the University’s 2001 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

Titled “The Civil Rights Struggle in the New Millennium: Issues, Obstacles and Strategies for Moving Forward,” the event featured federal judges Denise Page Hood and Algenon L. Marbley, and Michael A. Rodriguez, legislative staff attorney in the Chicago office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Marbley, appointed to the federal bench of the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, by President Clinton in 1997, led off by addressing voting rights. Two years ago, voting would have had low priority as a discussion topic, he noted. However, the legal battle over the counting of ballots in Florida following the 2000 presidential election has moved the issue of the rights of Black voters “back to front and center.”

“Who would have thought that in 2001, we’d still be discussing such issues as enfranchisement, or rather, disenfranchisement? But here we are,” Marbley said.

Marbley talked about the history of the Voting Rights Act, explaining its key sections and various amendments, all of which were intended to remove barriers to voting, he said. Among those obstacles were literacy tests, poll taxes, language barriers and gerrymandering.

He said that legal challenges to the Florida vote count in the 2000 presidential election are likely to involve the Voting Rights Act’s Section 2, which reads: “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any state or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Specifically, Marbley said, actions will center around the prevalence of less efficient punch card voting machines in precincts with a preponderance of Black voters and problems with the manner in which some citizens allegedly were purged from voter lists.

Rodriguez, whose work at MALDEF involves litigation, advocacy, policy analysis and community education on such issues as bilingual education, voting rights and immigrant rights, followed Marbley’s presentation with a discussion of racial profiling.

Detained twice at airports in the Midwest, Rodriguez said he has firsthand experience with racial profiling, or, as he called it, “DWB—driving while black or brown.” The first time, he was stopped for questioning in Chicago’s Midway Airport as he was waiting to board a plane to return to MALDEC’s Los Angeles office. The second incident occurred in the Des Moines, Iowa, airport, again as he was preparing to board a flight to Los Angeles. Ironically, he said, he was in Iowa investigating possible civil rights violations by a county sheriff’s department.

Because he was in airports both times he was stopped, Rodriguez said, he could not refuse to cooperate with authorities. When individuals enter airports, they basically agree to allow searches of their person and their luggage, Rodriguez said. Similarly, when police make stops for alleged traffic offenses, they then can go on what Rodriguez called “fishing expeditions” for evidence of any other kind of illegal activity.

Said Rodriguez, noting his legal training and extensive civil rights advocacy experience, “If this is happening to me, it must be happening to the vast majority of the population that don’t have this training or knowledge.” He added that racial profiling destroys the public’s confidence in law enforcement.

Panelists take questions from the audience following their discussion of ‘The Civil Rights Struggle in the New Millennium: Issues, Obstacles and Strategies for Moving Forward’ Jan. 15 in Hutchins Hall. Photo by Marcia L. Ledford, U-M Photo Services
Rodriguez applauded law enforcement agencies, including the Michigan State Police, that are conducting studies of traffic stops to determine whether their officers are engaging in racial profiling. He added that he believes this data gathering should be mandatory for all police agencies and should include such information as the date, time and location of the stop; the make and model of the vehicle; the race and ethnicity of the driver; and whether officers conducted a search of the vehicle and its occupants.

“Law enforcement should not violate the law to enforce it,” Rodriguez said.

Denise Page Hood, appointed by Clinton to federal court in the Eastern District of Michigan in 1994, concluded the program with a discussion of affirmative action in education. Much of her talk focused on the two admissions lawsuits against the University—Gratz v. Bollinger (LS&A) and Grutter v. Bollinger (Law School)—and another similar case, Hopwood v. Texas.

Hood speculated on whether the U.S. Supreme Court might hear any of the cases and if so, which aspects of the lawsuits would interest the justices. For example, the high court might consider whether having a diverse student body is a compelling state interest, she said.

In the Gratz case, Hood said, Judge Patrick Duggan found a compelling state interest in having a diverse student body, partly because the University had experts telling him why it is important.* The plaintiffs didn’t address the stigma affirmative action may have on its recipients or why this might be an issue in appeal, she added.

Finally, Hood addressed the most well-known school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, and its implications for the current lawsuits.

In Martin Luther King’s day, Hood said, a quality education meant a desegregated education. “What we found out is that it doesn’t work,” she said. Rather than send their children to public schools with Blacks, many whites moved out of urban neighborhoods, leaving inner-city schools as segregated as they were before.

Therefore, the question becomes how to provide equal postsecondary educational opportunities for minorities when many of the K–12 schools in which they are educated are also unequal to those of whites.

Panel discussion sponsors were: the Law School, the ACLU-Student Group, the Black Law Students’ Association, the Latino Law Students’ Association, the Michigan Journal of Race and Law, the Native American Law Students Association, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, the Environmental Law Society, Law Students for Reproductive Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, Outlaws and the Office of Academic Services.

* On Dec. 13, Duggan issued a judgment in favor of the University, upholding its use of affirmative action in admissions.