Work of UT Law professors influencing state and national civil rights laws

The work of two College of Law professors is informing the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as it seeks to determine whether Tennessee residents are being treated fairly in regard to legal fees, asset forfeiture, and equal access to justice. 

College of Law Professors Brian Krumm and Valorie Vojdik are working with 15 other Tennessee attorneys, professors and citizens on the Tennessee Advisory Committee to collect data and offer advice to the commission.

“The committee serves as the eyes and ears in Tennessee for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission,” Vojdik said. “Because we are on the ground here in Tennessee, we can flag issues with civil rights in our state, investigate those issues, and make recommendations to the commission to address violations.”

The committee’s most recent work, a preliminary advisory memo released in May, states that imposed legal fees create barriers for those formerly incarcerated residents trying to reintegrate, and that the number of fines and fees varies significantly by county. 

The memo concludes that these fees disproportionately impact women, minorities, and the poor; can create uncollectable debt for counties; exacerbate the challenges Tennessee residents face finding work, housing, and transportation; and negatively impact the person’s family and social networks. 

The Tennessee Advisory Committee has issued two other reports: one on civil asset forfeiture, and another that addresses how Tennessee’s rules govern ex-felons’ ability to restore their voting rights. Prior to drafting the documents, the committee gathered research and held public hearings to receive comments. 

Krumm, who offered assistance compiling information about civil asset forfeiture, said he appreciates being able to gain perspectives from those who have not traditionally had a voice in the political process. 

“Conducting open hearings so that the various interest groups can voice their positions, and so that public policy can be considered and evaluated in an open forum and not through deal making behind closed doors, is so valuable to the state of Tennessee,” Krumm said. “Asset forfeiture provides an incentive for local law enforcement to focus on strategies to obtain additional financial resources without having to go through the normal budgeting process and without the attendant financial oversight. The real loser in that process is social justice.” 

The reports compiled for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a commission established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, ultimately help inform the President and Congress on civil rights issues. 

“My work on the committee has been invaluable, enriching my understanding of how civil rights laws work – or don’t work – in real life,” Vojdik said. “I bring that back to the classroom, where students are eager to understand current civil rights issues and develop practical ways to address them.”

This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary celebration. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.

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