Vanita Gupta challenges students to uphold American ideals

In times of challenge, the legal profession often rises to find its strongest voice, and now is the time to rise and make justice real for everyone, Vanita Gupta told a group of UT Law students this week.

Gupta, the Obama-era U.S. Department of Justice civil rights chief and now the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, promised no “sugar-coating” in her assessment of the status of our country.

She appeared at the UT College of Law as part of the Rose Lecture series, endowed by Rick Rose, and in conjunction with the UT Legal Clinic’s 70th Anniversary celebration.

In her lecture, Gupta encouraged the law students to respond to three challenges including “the protection of immigrants,” the “unprecedented attack on voting rights,” and “criminal justice reform.”

Gupta shared the story of a young woman who came to the United States with her parents when she was just 1 year old. The young woman, who never knew Mexico as her home, excelled academically and earned a college degree. She felt a sense of safety and acceptance through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA, Gupta said.

“She stepped bravely out of the shadows, registered with the U.S. government and she took that leap of faith,” Gupta said. “And then last month the administration pulled the rug out from under her and more than 800,000 young people they rescinded the DACA program.”

In this “time of tremendous nativist fervor when many in the country are seeking to narrow who belongs in America and who America belongs to,” legislation must be enacted to afford protections to those who need it, she said.

Likewise, African American and Latino voting populations face discrimination and threats to their voting rights, Gupta said. At least 10 courts have found that states or localities have enacted laws that discriminate against minority populations of voters, she said, and yet President Donald Trump has created a “sham commission” that’s designed to restrict the right to vote.

This commission “appears to be laying the groundwork to make it easier for states to purge voters off of the rolls,” Gupta said.

Gupta’s battle to protect minority populations facing discrimination also extends to the criminal justice system.

“Our prison population is disproportionately black, it’s disproportionately Latino, and it’s disproportionately poor,” she said. “For too long this country has had 5 percent of the world’s population and yet 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Just think about that and how staggering that is.”

The extent and severity of discrimination against minority populations was brought to light following the shooting of Ferguson, Missouri resident Michael Brown, Gupta said. The incident revealed rampant persecution of African Americans by a police department dominated by white men; issuance of excessive fees for minor violations; and inconsistent access to the municipalities’ officials.

“These practices broke the law and they degraded residents and they destroyed trust,” she said. “These practices are not confined to Ferguson alone.”

Since the revelation of the injustices in Ferguson, bi-partisan reform has begun among states leaving many pressing toward smarter and fairer policies, Gupta said.

“Across the country the broad-base movement of people of all backgrounds across the political spectrum, from defense counsel to policy advocates, to Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians, to faith and business leaders, to prosecutors and activists and people directly impacted by the system, folks are pushing for reform and winning,” she said.

Gupta urged students to understand that the civil rights movement did not end in 1960s.

“That’s the biggest threat, I think, we face,” she said. But “really the beauty of America’s story and the promise of America’s legal framework is that we as a country and as a people can … evolve imperfectly and yet unyieldingly when individuals stand up and speak out.”

At the forefront of that change are the lawyers who envision a better path, she said. They are the ones who “take risks on behalf of courageous men and women to shape our country into a more just union.”

“More than ever it is clear that it falls to rest of us to uphold America’s most cherished ideals,” she said.

Hear Gupta’s speech in its entirety via this link.