At this year’s Black History Month Gala, the NYU School of Law Black Allied Law Students Association (BALSA) honored two Law School alumni for their contributions to the legal field: Debo Adegbile ’94 and Suzette Malveaux ’94.
Now a partner at WilmerHale, Adegbile worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) for over a decade. In 2007, he became the director of litigation, and then served as LDF’s acting president and director counsel from 2012 through early 2013.
A professor at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, Malveaux teaches Civil Procedure, Complex Litigation, Civil Rights Law, and Fair Employment Law. As a class action specialist, she has worked on high-profile civil rights cases, including the largest employment discrimination class action in US history, Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes (2011).
The pair, who were members of the same class section while at NYU Law, discussed challenges faced and lessons learned while litigating major civil justice cases, speaking to the night’s theme, “Fifty Years Since the Voting Rights Act: The Current State of Civil Rights in America.”
“To be engaged in transformative justice takes a lot of creativity,” Malveaux acknowledged.
For six years, she served as pro bono counsel to the plaintiffs in Alexander v. State of Oklahoma, a suit filed in 2003 against the city of Tulsa by victims of the 1921 Tulsa race riot, which by some estimates left 300 blacks dead. Malveaux joined a legal team that included famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree, Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. The federal district and appellate courts dismissed the case, citing the statute of limitations, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.
“We didn’t win on the law,” Malveaux said. “We lost. But in some ways, we redefined what it meant to win.”
During the process, Malveaux wrote a legal article about the case to increase awareness, the lawyers raised money for the survivors, and the documentary Before They Die! was released.
“We educated people about the plight of those who went through the experience. We gave voice and dignity to our clients. We revealed history that had not been revealed before. And so we learned that the law doesn’t solve everything, and we had to redefine what we meant by success.”
Adegbile had his own story to share. In 2013, he argued—and lost—the landmark Shelby County v. Holder before the Supreme Court. The Court’s ruling invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which designates the states and districts that, due to a history of discrimination, must receive federal approval before they can change their voting laws. Since the ruling, various states have passed restrictive voter ID laws, a trend the Brennan Center for Justice has followed closely.
Despite the loss, Adegbile underscored the importance of passing on the baton, highlighting the foresight of John Payton, the former president and director counsel of the LDF, who tapped Adegbile to take on the Shelby case. Payton passed away in 2012, before the case went to the Supreme Court, and Adegbile thanked him for being willing to give an opportunity to a member of the next generation.
“John didn’t give that gift to me. He gave it to the movement. Because he was looking at things that were bigger than himself.”
It was a comment not lost on the young lawyers in the room. Indeed, BALSA was also honoring Uchechi Wosu, a senior at Brentwood High School, with the BALSA Legends Scholarship to support her goal of entering the legal profession. How are future lawyers like her to proceed?
Adegbile quoted the late Professor Derrick Bell, who taught at NYU Law while he and Malveaux were students. In his book Ethical Ambition, Bell asked, “How can I maintain my integrity while seeking success?”
“I have not always had victories, and occasionally I’ve had to move the goalposts,” Adegbile said. “But what I know is that in every fight in which I’ve been engaged, I have been committed to maintaining my integrity and defining success by standing for something, not simply where I stand.”
It was a personal answer that echoed Malveaux’s remarks, as she challenged the audience to “lead with your heart, not just your head.”
Posted February 19, 2015