Richard Trumka at lectern

Richard L. Trumka talks history, future of unions and labor at 27th Annual Rauh Lecture

On Thursday, Oct. 24, AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka delivered the 27th Annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture, linking the history and future of labor rights and reminding the audience of Rauh’s role in paving the way for union democracy. Trumka’s long-time mentor and friend Joseph “Chip” Yablonski introduced Trumka to the audience, describing the ties between Trumka, Rauh and Yablonski’s father, labor rights activist Joseph “Jock” Yablonski. UDC Law Dean Renée McDonald Hutchins provided opening and closing remarks.

Hutchins thanked the large crowd in the Moot Courtroom before providing a brief overview of the Rauh Lecture’s impact on the UDC Law community. In the audience were UDC Law faculty and students, University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Chief Academic Officer Lawrence Potter, deans and faculty from across UDC, members of the DC School of Law Foundation Board, the leadership of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and guests from the community. Hutchins acknowledged the guests before praising the students, calling them “my guiding star in terms of my leadership.” She then asked for a moment to recognize the passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings and a beloved member of the UDC Law community, Professor Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke.

Remembering Joe Rauh

Joseph Yablonski at lectern
Joseph “Chip” Yablonski introduces Richard L. Trumka at the 27th Annual Rauh Lecture at UDC Law Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo: Cheriss May)

In his introduction, Yablonski tied Trumka to his father and to Rauh, calling the latter “the greatest mentor of young lawyers – at least young liberal lawyers – in Washington in my lifetime.” Rauh represented Yablonski’s father when he challenged W.A. “Tony” Boyle for the presidency of United Mine Workers (UMWA) in 1969. Despite losing the election, the elder Yablonski and Joe Rauh fought for union democracy until Jock, his wife and his daughter were murdered on New Year’s Eve in 1969. Yablonski praised Rauh’s impact on the investigation and acknowledged his role in helping the family weather the tragedy. Rauh was instrumental in urging the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate the murders, for which Boyle ultimately served time several years later. “That night [of the murders] is sort of indelible to me in terms of Joe’s humanity and his strategic vision,” Yablonski told the crowd.

Rauh was also influential in reforms that led UMWA to adopt, according to Yablonski, “the most democratic union constitution in the United States, probably the world.” It was around then, as well, that Yablonski and Trumka’s paths crossed. Yablonski hired Trumka – who had been studying in the mines by the light of his helmet lamp through Penn State and Villanova Law – to what he called “probably the most ambitious and bright group of lawyers ever assembled for a labor union.”

Making the ultimate sacrifice for union members

After working for UMWA for a time, Trumka chose to fight the union dysfunction he had observed, first returning to the mines to reach the required number of service years to run for international union office. “You can have all kinds of measures about what a union leader ought to be,” Yablonski remarked, “but somebody that gives up writing briefs and arguing motions in an air-conditioned environment to go to work underground is somebody that is making the ultimate sacrifice for his union members.”

Yablonski concluded his introduction with a summary of Trumka’s leadership before acknowledging that “Joe Rauh would be very, very pleased at our speaker tonight,” calling him “the heir of Joe Rauh’s legacy.”

Creating value out of a hole in the ground

Richard L. Trumka at lectern
Richard L. Trumka shares stories of working in the mines, studying to prepare for eventual union leadership at the 27th Annual Rauh Lecture at UDC Law Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo: Cheriss May)

Trumka’s message centered on the importance of unions for today’s worker, connecting the history of union democracy to current issues of labor and democracy. Forming the basis of his career philosophy, Trumka noted that, “if you want to help workers, you first need to know and help people.” Trumka got to know those people and workers by going into the mines, and he took the lessons he learned with him throughout his career. “The education I got in the mines far exceeds anything I got at Penn State or Villanova,” Trumka said. “It’s a job that teaches you the nature of hard work, creating value out of a hole in the ground.”

While Trumka was working and studying in Pennsylvania, the United States faced a number of key moments in its history, chief among them the fight for civil rights. As the public sector grew, Trumka explained, so did the demand for better working conditions. “People were striking to be recognized and have the dignity of a human being,” he explained, as he recounted the events of the 1969 Black Lung Strike in West Virginia and the Memphis Sanitation Strike where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Returning to his own experience, Trumka detailed the dysfunction he observed in the unions. Even as the governor of West Virginia was signing the first piece of legislation to recognize black lung as an occupational hazard, mine workers were fighting for basic rights in the Boyle-led UMWA. Trumka described the difficulty workers faced in understanding their rights; it was not possible for workers to receive copies of union contracts or constitutions, for instance. “If you tried to file a grievance,” Trumka said, “they’d tell you that, ‘we’ll tell you when you have a grievance.’”

Your fight is my fight and my fight is your fight

Trumka then highlighted Rauh and Jock Yablonski’s attempts at battling labor union corruption in the late 1960s. Jock, Trumka noted, “was a symbol of everything we’d been fighting for – a union that has your back, true solidarity – where your fight is my fight and my fight is your fight. And thanks to this evening’s namesake, that all became clear again to us.”

After Jock’s death, Rauh continued to fight for union democracy and did so with more support from mineworkers, many of whom rallied behind the late Yablonski’s cause. About Rauh, Trumka added, “he was your guy. When Joe Rauh was your lawyer, he was your lawyer.” Trumka cited Yablonski and Rauh’s efforts as the catalyst for union momentum in the 1970s and its effect on his own career. Trumka became President of United Mine Workers in 1982, and he fondly recalled being sworn in by his father – “who had given his life to his union” and later died of black lung, “like every man in my family in that generation.”

Connecting those earlier efforts for union democracy to similar issues workers face today, Trumka said that, just as members nearly fifty years ago “stopped looking at their shoes,” today’s workers are also “looking our employers squarely in the eye and delivering a clear message: ‘Enough. Enough.’” He credited Jock Yablonski and Joseph Rauh for making that possible both then and now.

It is the “systems and institutions we’re supposed to rely on” that stand in the way of progress for workers today, he continued. Trumka argued those systems are rigged in favor of corporations and politicians and that democracy itself is in jeopardy. He cited a Harvard Law study that found only 30 percent of Millennials believe it is essential to live in a democracy and 25 percent even said democracy is a bad thing. Trumka contended this is a result of an economy and political system that does not work for them; “young people and workers in general are becoming more disillusioned as they bear the brunt of a broken economy.” Citing flat wages, subpar healthcare and disappearing pensions, Trumka said the threats to union democracy and democracy in general are “startling and heartbreaking” given the efforts of previous generations.

Times are tough, but so are working people

Audience members
Audience members listen to 27th Annual Rauh Lecture with AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka at UDC Law Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo: Cheriss May)

Despite sounding a mild alarm, Trumka offered hope to the audience, saying he has “never been more optimistic” in light of current collective actions – striking teachers in Chicago and auto workers in Michigan, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo – “where people are saying, ‘the only way we’re going to get this done is if we stand together, if we lock arms with the people standing next to us.” He stressed the impact of “ordinary people” effecting “extraordinary” change.

Reminding us that the role of unions is to provide better conditions for working people, Trumka urged the audience to turn to one another and use the momentum of current social action to keep fighting for “a voice and democracy on the job.” He added, “times are tough, but so are working people. We never give up without a fight.”

He closed his talk with advice for the law students in the room. Soon, he told them, “they will send you off into a complicated world with an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility to make a difference.” Then he asked them to consider how they would meet that challenge, urging them to work to advance fairness and freedom, to fight inequality. “Fifty years after Jock died and Joe helped all of us move on,” Trumka said in closing, “you can help strengthen democracy for generations to come. You can. And I truly hope that you will be lawyers for democracy and make Joe Rauh proud of you because he fought every day for that – and for the little guy.”

Trumka then took questions from the audience that built on some of the topics he had discussed and highlighted additional labor concerns like the growing roles of artificial intelligence and automation, the impact of social media on labor organizing and the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

About the Rauh Lecture

About Richard L. Trumka

View the 27th Annual Rauh Lecture in its entirety on MediaSite.

Group photo
AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, fourth from left, poses with, from left, Robert Alston, President AFSCME Local 2921; Dan Edelman; Chip Yablonski; Laverne Gooding-Jones, President AFSCME Local 2087; and Robert Hollingsworth, President AFSCME Local 2776 prior to the 27th Annual Rauh Lecture Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo: Cheriss May)

“Despair is the Luxury of the Privileged:” 26th Rauh Lecture by Vanita Gupta on Civil Rights Today

On Tuesday, Nov. 27, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Vanita Gupta delivered the twenty-sixth annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture to a rapt audience at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law).

Jonathan Smith and Vanita Gupta speaking
Jonathan Smith, left, and Rauh Lecturer Vanita Gupta, right, kick off the twenty-sixth annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture as the audience looks on.

The event reunited Gupta, who served as head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice during one of the most consequential periods for the division, with her former colleague Jonathan Smith, ’84, who served as Chief of the Special Litigation Section under Gupta’s leadership.

The interview-style conversation showcased Gupta’s profound knowledge and experience as a leading-edge civil rights litigator over the course of the wide-ranging discussion on the present landscape for civil and human rights in America. Throughout the evening, Gupta offered penetrating insight into rapidly-changing areas of law ranging from asylum law and constitutional structures to state-level bail reform and voting rights initiatives. Drawing on her experience as the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States, Gupta weighed in on numerous, complex issues currently undergoing litigation and offered a hard-hitting critique of the Trump administration’s efforts to straitjacket the Department of Justice’s ability to investigate and prosecute civil rights violations and compromise the agency’s independence.

The Rauh Lecture: A Lasting Legacy

Chair Emeritus of the D.C. School of Law Foundation B. Michael Rauh opened the event with brief remarks on the history of the Foundation and the legacy of his late father Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., the liberal lion, civil liberties attorney, and founding member of the law school’s Board of Governors in whose honor the Rauh Lecture was established in 1993.

Rauh commended the selection of Gupta as this year’s Rauh Lecturer saying she “would lead the country in the good fight against” the current administration’s efforts to roll back civil and human rights protections, and he exhorted the many practicing lawyers and up-and-coming attorneys in the audience to stand ready to aggressively litigate for the protection of our democracy at her side.

Mike Rauh at the podium
B. Michael Rauh, D.C. School of Law Foundation Chair Emeritus. Lisa Helfert Photography.

“The Next Move”

UDC Law Acting Dean and Professor of Law John Brittain then took to the stage to introduce Gupta and Smith to the audience. Dean Brittain – who is himself a prominent civil rights litigator who has achieved many landmark victories for school desegregation during his decades-long career – celebrated Gupta’s remarkable perseverance and skillful leadership of the Civil Rights Division to secure groundbreaking victories for fair housing, voting rights, and police accountability in the federal courts despite “unremitting opposition” from a partisan Congress.

Dean Brittain at the podium
John Brittain, UDC Law Acting Dean and Professor of Law, introduces Rauh Lecturer Vanita Gupta and moderator Jonathan Smith to the audience. Lisa Helfert Photography.

Dean Brittain singled out as a high watermark of her tenure the division’s successful investigation and prosecution of police departments in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, and Chicago. The groundbreaking investigations produced consent decrees with historic limits on racially-motivated policing and civil rights abuses that remain in force to this day. He went on to praise Gupta for choosing to join The Leadership Conference after leaving the Justice Department, saying that “Instead of ‘cashing out’ on her long record of public service after leaving the Justice Department, she doubled down” by joining the historic organization, which has coordinated the lobbying efforts on behalf of every major civil rights law since its founding in 1950.

Noting that Gupta and Smith, as Chief of the Special Litigation Section, shared leadership on the Justice Department’s civil investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department following the death of Michael Brown, Dean Brittain highlighted that the living room-style conversation offered listeners a rare opportunity to see this historic Justice Department “team in action.” “It’s like we’re together in a conference room in the Department of Justice,” said Dean Brittain, “and we’re planning the next move.”

“Gamechanger:” voting rights and ballot access

Jonathan Smith, who worked under Gupta’s leadership of the Civil Rights Division, opened the conversation-style portion of the lecture with high praise for Gupta’s “extraordinary career.” Smith recounted Gupta’s multiple and precedent-setting court victories, including her landmark litigation challenging wrongful convictions in Texas as an entry-level attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and extending through her criminal justice reform work and litigation at the ACLU challenging the detention of immigrant families in for-profit facilities.

For her part, Gupta praised the “extraordinary legacy of public service” that the Rauh family represents and its continued support of UDC Law, saying “the civil rights community is deeply indebted to all of you.”

Vanita Gupta and Jonathan Smith speaking
Vanita Gupta, left, and Jonathan Smith, right. Lisa Helfert Photography.

With the stage set, the audience listened in rapt attention as Smith kicked off the discussion with a question about the 2018 midterm elections, asking Gupta what the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives means for the civil rights agenda. Gupta responded that the election was, first and foremost, a “huge win for democracy” as a practical matter, because it restored a much-needed check in Congress after two years of one-party rule.

Gupta also emphasized the importance for civil and human rights in America of the election of several “first-ever” officials to Congress, including the first Muslim and first Native American women elected to Congress, and the historic number of women representatives in the House. She hailed the result as “a massive win for civil and human rights” with far-reaching implications.

Gupta also stressed the wave of progressive state-level ballot initiatives approved by voters. Gupta singled out the Florida initiative restoring voting rights to 1.4 million people convicted of a felony as a “gamechanger,” noting that it is “the single largest expansion of the franchise since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in the ‘60s.”

In the wake of Charlottesville and constant attacks on immigrant families, Gupta described the November election results as a reaffirmation that “Americans will show up at the polls for the kind of country they want and the kind of country they deserve.”

“Despair is the luxury of the privileged”

The conversation shifted to the state of federal civil rights enforcement in the country, as Smith asked Gupta whether the new Congress can reverse the erosion of agency civil rights enforcement authority at not only the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division but also at civil rights sections across the government, including the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Gupta responded with a laundry list of potential targets for congressional oversight in what she referred to as the administration’s “systematic effort” to dismantle civil rights enforcement authority encompassing “underenforcement at the Department of Education, the systematic withdrawal of guidances, the slowdown and lack of enforcement of laws that Congress enacted and gave to these federal agencies the mandate to enforce.” Expressing hope for improved oversight in the new Congress, Gupta stressed the important role the House can play in bringing the public’s attention to the “deeply important and historic role that the federal government has played in ensuring the protection of vulnerable and marginalized communities through its civil rights enforcement across agencies.”

Fair and independent courts are “fundamental” to democracy

Bringing the conversation around to the topic of the Senate’s role in confirming judicial nominees to the federal bench, and the Republican party’s continued control of the chamber, Smith asked Gupta what lessons she learned from The Leadership Conference’s effort to block the confirmation of now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and other judicial nominees based on their records of opposition to civil rights and anti-discrimination measures.

Speaking to the history of The Leadership Conference, which she now leads, Gupta emphasized the importance of coalitional organizing to preserve the independence of the federal judiciary, which has for decades served as “a backstop against some of the most egregious excesses of the other two branches of government.”

In what she termed the “shocking” and aggressive reshaping of the federal courts in the past two years with the confirmation of “extremist nominees the likes of whom the Senate has never seen before,” Gupta signaled the dangerous and long-lasting consequences posed by these lifetime appointments, saying “my children, and probably their children, are now going to reap the seeds of what has been sown the last two years and unfortunately what is likely to continue the next two years.”

Gupta reflected that “the fight for fair courts has not been taken seriously enough” because “we often think about our issues in silos.” She emphasized how The Leadership Conference centers the importance of the foundational structures of democracy because “the fight to preserve the structures of our democracy – like the census, like the courts, like voting rights – are so crucial because everything else we care about, the courts directly have a say-so on.” The implications for civil rights litigators are dire, she added, with many civil rights litigators likely to avoid resorting to the Supreme Court to pursue alternative strategies for reform such as legislative advocacy and passage of state-level ballot initiatives.

“You can’t be a civil rights lawyer and have despair”

Predicting that the next two years will witness the Trump administration successfully filling all vacancies in the federal courts, Smith questioned “what, other than despair, can we do to change the dynamic and hold the Senate accountable.”

“You can’t be a civil rights lawyer and have despair,” Gupta said without missing a beat, adding that civil rights lawyers are almost by definition attorneys who battle against despair. “Hopelessness is an excuse for the privileged, so we don’t have the privilege of being hopeless. We must fight back.”

Gupta described the sweeping losses for civil and human rights witnessed in the past two years, saying “there is a still a deep and profound racism in this country, that has emboldened racism in the corridors of power,” but she rejected hopelessness and complacency outright. She identified the growing power of local and community-based groups organizing for progressive causes as reason for hope.

Sessions’ last act “another slap in the face of the Civil Rights Division”

Smith turned next to the “last act” of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to issue a memorandum that straightjackets the Civil Rights Division’s historic work on police reform by restricting the division’s ability to pursue consent decrees through investigation and prosecution of patterns and practices of police misconduct.

Calling the move “another slap in the face of the Civil Rights Division,” Gupta noted that the memorandum targets the very work that was the major focus of her tenure at the Justice Department. She argued forcefully that the memorandum flies in the face of the statutory mandate given to the agency by Congress in 1994. The memorandum restricts approval of such consent agreements to political appointees, requires evidence of violations beyond unconstitutional behavior, and imposes an arbitrary “sunset” date on such agreements in place of court oversight and proof that the police department or law enforcement agency has improved the very practices governed by the agreement.

Gupta criticized the policy as “demoralizing” to the Justice Department’s career attorneys and “a real blow to civil rights enforcement around the country.” Nevertheless, Gupta found reason for hope, citing that the existing consent decrees previously filed with Article III judges remain in force and cannot be unilaterally revoked. She also lifted up the “extraordinary work” of state attorneys general, local mayors, and police department officials who have stepped into the gap to locally negotiate the measures.

“Despite the gutting of the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement, the good news is there still is a lot of momentum on criminal justice reform, and we need to build on the powerful advocacy locally and at the state level to continue forward,” recommended Gupta.

Ballot access, the census

With a nod to her earlier remarks on the importance of shoring up fundamental structures that preserve American democracy like the federal courts, Gupta turned next to the ongoing battle over ballot access and the census.

Gupta surveys the six ongoing court battles over the Trump administration’s proposed “citizenship question” in the coming census that threatens to systematically undercount communities of color as a result of the chilling effect the change would have on mixed-status families. Gupta described the efforts of The Leadership Conference to unwind the move at the policy level and to increase funding of local efforts to organize for an accurate census count. She exhorted the audience to connect up with The Leadership Conference to get plugged in to local efforts.

Smith’s next question asked Gupta what can be expected form state legislatures around the country with regard to gerrymandering and voter suppression. Citing several state-level ballot initiatives during the midterm election that took the politics out of redistricting with the establishment of independent commissions, Gupta called for similar efforts in other states. She went on to describe the “phenomenal work” of groups such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and The Leadership Conference’s All Voting is Local campaign, which are fighting voter suppression at the local level around the country and pushing for same-day registration and early voting initiatives, but she warned that full ballot access will only be secured with the restoration of the Voting Rights Act and other reforms, like automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and early voting.

With the event drawing to a close, Dean Brittain returned to the podium to preside over a lively question and answer session with the audience covering critical issues such as the nationwide spike in hate crimes, local opportunities in the District to combat voter suppression and protect the census, and the potential for further action to limit or remove judges confirmed to the federal bench.

Dean Brittain concluded the powerful dialogue and led the audience in a round of applause before presenting Gupta with the UDC Law Dean’s Cup in appreciation for her contribution to the law school. He praised Gupta’s “powerful remarks” and seemingly “encyclopedic knowledge” she showed on the issues, calling her “an inspiration.”

Vanita Gupta and Dean Brittain
UDC Law Acting Dean and Professor of Law John Brittain, right, awards Rauh Lecturer Vanita Gupta, left, the UDC Law Dean’s Cup. Lisa Helfert Photography.

Dean Brittain also lauded the “steadfast support of the law school and its critical mission” by Smith, who was UDC Law’s Associate Dean for Clinical Programs before transitioning to become the Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. A catered reception followed, courtesy of the D.C. School of Law Foundation, offering guests an opportunity to speak with Gupta and other members of the UDC Law community.

About Vanita Gupta

Vanita Gupta is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s premier civil and human rights coalition. An experienced leader and litigator who has devoted her entire career to civil rights work, prior to joining The Leadership Conference, Gupta served from 2014 to 2017 as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama. As the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States, Gupta oversaw a wide range of criminal and civil enforcement efforts to ensure equal justice and protect equal opportunity for all during one of the most consequential periods for the division.

Prior to joining the Justice Department, Gupta served as Deputy Legal Director and the Director of the Center for Justice at the ACLU. She began her career as an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Gupta earned her J.D. from the New York University School of Law, where she has also taught a civil rights litigation clinic.

About the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture

The annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture series serves as a dedicated forum at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law) in which leading members of the bench or bar speak directly to the people of the District and the law school community on issues of vital importance to the practice of law in the public interest.

Established in 1993 in honor of the late civil liberties attorney and founding member of the law school Board of Governors Joe Rauh, some of the nation’s most respected civil rights and public interest figures, including then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor, and many others, have delivered the Rauh Lecture. The Rauh Lecture, which is open to the public and free of charge, includes a catered reception at the conclusion of the event courtesy of the D.C. School of Law Foundation.

About the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law

The University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law) has the largest clinical requirement of any U.S. law school, providing more than 100,000 hours of legal services to thousands of D.C. residents each year through our nine legal clinics and robust experiential programs. UDC Law has garnered a No. 2 ranking by the National Law Journal (2018) for government and public interest job placement and No. 8 for Best Clinical Training Program by U.S. News & World Report (2019). For more information, please visit

Watch the lecture in its entirety on the UDC-TV YouTube channel here.


Stephen Bright

Stephen Bright talks death penalty, debtors’ prisons, mass incarceration at 25th Annual Rauh Lecture

Washington, DC—On Nov. 29, Stephen B. Bright delivered the 25th Annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture, titled “Race & Poverty in the Criminal Courts: The Death Penalty, Debtors’ Prisons, Mass Incarceration and Other Injustices,” to a packed house at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law.

UDC Law Dean Shelley Broderick introduced Bright to the audience after brief welcoming remarks from DC School of Law Foundation Chair B. Michael Rauh and UDC President Ronald Mason. The interview-style conversation was facilitated by Wade Henderson, Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Chair of Public Interest Law at UDC Law and Senior Advisor to The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Bright and Henderson covered a range of criminal justice issues, including the impact of fines on citizens living in poverty, the arbitrary nature of death penalty application, and the trouble with attempting to predict future behavior.

“Basically debtors’ prisons”

Bright explained municipal courts are often “not about law enforcement” but “about revenue generation.” He provided examples of how seemingly small fines can add up over time, compounding the legal problems faced by people living in poverty. For someone with no income, he went on, even a fine of a few hundred dollars can be devastating. “It’s basically debtors’ prison,” Bright said, “Everything costs in the criminal justice system today.”

Before pivoting to the death penalty, Henderson and Bright outlined some measures that might improve the criminal justice system overall. Bright described a need to improve the quality of court-appointed representation, Henderson suggested better training of law enforcement personnel to help avoid implicit bias, and both men urged electing better representatives.

Henderson recalled September’s The Long Game: Why the 1957 Civil Rights Act Still Matters Today at UDC Law, at which Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color of Change, told the audience of his organization’s plans to remain involved in the election of prosecutors. In response, Bright said, “95% of elected top prosecutors are white. That’s remarkable in a court system that’s dealing with so many people of color.”

“The Capital of Capital Punishment”

In Harris County, Texas, 127 people who have been sentenced to death have been executed. Bright said, “Harris County is the capital of capital punishment,” before putting the numbers into perspective. “That’s more than any state except Texas itself,” which, as of a Nov. 9 update to the Death Penalty Information Center, has executed 545 people, followed by Virginia with 113 and Oklahoma with 112 (Bright cited numbers from before the recent update). Bright explained that, after electing three women in succession, including current District Attorney Kim Ogg, Harris County death penalty numbers are down “dramatically,” a trend he attributes to a prosecution that better represents the diversity of the county’s population.

“Closest we get to witchcraft”

In April, Bright argued before the Supreme Court in McWilliams v. Dunn that an indigent defendant is entitled to access to an independent expert witness. In June, the Court narrowly decided for the defense, but Bright said a case like this “shows what Congress and the courts are doing to make life difficult if not impossible” for defendants who are poor. “So much of what’s going on in these cases is about procedure,” Bright said, “It’s all about ways to trip people up to keep them out of court.”

Furthermore, Bright explained, the question of whether someone might be a future danger to society is “as close as we get in court to practicing witchcraft.”

Henderson remarked, “It’s a strange new world.”

“As arbitrary as getting struck by lightning”

Henderson then turned the conversation to the inherent racial bias in application of the death penalty, citing Justice Potter Stewart’s famous proclamation from Furman v. Georgia that “getting the death penalty is as arbitrary as getting struck by lightning.”

This analogy, Bright declared, illuminated not just the arbitrary nature of the death penalty but the tendency for its application to disproportionately affect poor people and people of color. “The reason for all the problems with the death penalty was racist, white supremacy” and “the terrible way in which poor people are dealt with in this system.”

“A matter of race and place”

The death penalty, then, according to Bright’s experience is a “matter of race and place.” To demonstrate his point, he offered the startling statistic that, of over 3,000 counties in the United States, only 30 jurisdictions account for the majority of death sentences. He reiterated much hinges on the prosecutor, a reminder to the audience of the importance of paying attention to elections.

“Withering on the vine”

Before opening the floor for questions, Bright discussed the trend toward fewer death sentences, some considerations about death penalty methods, and the legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Court ruled defendants have a constitutional right to an attorney at the state level.

On how often the death penalty is applied, Bright shed some light on a trend away from its application, going from 315 sentences in 1995 to only 31 last year. “There is some chance,” he said, “it’s kind of going to wither on the vine.”

Henderson asked if the decision in Gideon is being upheld, to which Bright lamented, “I really wish I could say ‘yes,’ but the answer is ‘no.’” Gideon, he went on, was an unfunded mandate, but the decision did not indicate how it would be paid for. “Why would the state that wants to convict, imprison, and kill a person pay to defeat that very purpose?”

Regarding the use of lethal injection and other methods to administer the death penalty, Bright discussed a return to firing squads, which he indicated would likely “be the end of the death penalty.” In sum, he reminded the audience, “You are killing people; let’s be honest about what we’re doing here.”

Questions, asked by UDC Law students, UDC faculty, attorneys, and community members, ranged from what law students can do to address the issues presented in the lecture to historical developments that have led to current trends to what lessons the United States can provide to other countries in reforming their own criminal justice systems.

The lecture concluded with Dean Broderick presenting Stephen B. Bright with the Dean’s Cup, given each year to the Rauh Lecturer. A reception followed, offering guests an opportunity to speak with Bright and other members of the UDC Law community.

About Stephen B. Bright

Stephen B. Bright has tried capital cases before juries in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, and argued and won four capital cases before the Supreme Court. He spent 35 years with the Southern Center for Human Rights, first as director and then as president and senior counsel. He is now Professor of Practice at the Georgia State College of Law and teaches at the law schools at Yale and Georgetown. Subjects of his litigation, teaching and writing include capital punishment, legal representation for poor people accused of crimes, conditions and practices in prisons and jails, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, judicial independence and sentencing. He received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award in 1998. The Daily Law Report, Georgia’s legal newspaper, named him “Newsmaker of the Year” in 2003 for his contribution to bringing about creation of a public defender system in Georgia and “Lawyer of the Year” in 2017 for his success in the Supreme Court and pursuit of justice. His curriculum vitae and publications are available at

The Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture

Each year, UDC Law invites one or more leading members of the bench or the bar to address the community on a law-related topic of interest. Some of the nation’s most respected civil rights and public interest, public policy or public service attorneys, as well as the Attorney General and two sitting US Supreme Court Justices have honored us with their participation.

The Rauh Lecture is always open to the public, free of charge, and followed by a reception.

About Joseph L. Rauh, Jr.

Joe Rauh envisioned a law school that would function as a training ground for public interest lawyers: a school where law students could learn basic skills and represent the underrepresented at the same time, a school that made dedication to public service a criterion for admission and commitment to public service a life-long responsibility. The University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law is Joe Rauh’s dream come true. A founding member of the Law School’s Board of Governors, Rauh remained one of its staunchest supporters until his last hours with us.

Watch the lecture in its entirety on the UDC Law Facebook page or below from Youtube.

Collage of Ronald Mason, Jr., Shelley Broderick, B. Michael Rauh, and Wade Hendersoncrowd to the 25th Annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture
Clockwise from top left: Ronald Mason, Jr., Shelley Broderick, B. Michael Rauh, and Wade Henderson welcomed the crowd to the 25th Annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecture
Bright and Henderson
Bright and Henderson
Wade Henderson
Wade Henderson
Dean Broderick and Stephen Bright
Dean Broderick presented Bright with the Dean’s Cup

Audience listening to Stephen Bright