BY JEFFREY JAMISON
This past weekend, over 65 students from around the country took part in the first ever American Constitution Society (ACS) Northeast Regional Student Leadership Conference hosted by the HLS chapter of ACS. Conference organizers interlaced an array of programs that effectively captured the theme of the daylong conference-“Working to Ensure the Fundamental Principles of Equality and Justice.”
Programs included panel discussions on substantive legal issues related to equality and justice, breakout sessions to share programming ideas and assist each other in developing strategic plans, and networking sessions to help build a stronger network of ACS student chapters and members.
Dean Kagan told the conferees that, while she speaks at events all the time, it is student events like these that she believes are the most important, because “there is a lot of work to be done in this country and the members of this audience will be doing a good deal of that work.” The highlights of the conference, included a candid panel discussion on equality and justice issues in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a provocative keynote address by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).
The morning panel, “Equality and Justice Through the Lens of Hurricane Katrina,” addressed some of the more pressing equality and justice issues facing the residents of the Gulf region and indeed all of America as that region looks to rebuild.
Professor Allida Black of George Washington University started things off by suggesting that the focus in the Gulf region “should be on what needs to be done to create a more equal and just society than was there before.” Black, a history professor, argued that the need for “programmatic response most worthy of early responders and policymakers’ attention is a lesson that federal and state policymakers learned as they responded to the man-made crises of the Great Depression and the period’s extraordinarily devastating natural disaster, the Dust Bowl.” She explained that, as was the case then, today’s policymakers should not be focused on how to rebuild the Gulf region but should be working more on how to revitalize it. Black was critical of the current administration, explaining that, in the 3 months since Katrina, the administration has not offered the slightest hint of a program to revitalize the region. In comparison, Black pointed out that, in less than 16 months after the Dustbowl and Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration put almost four million men to work building hundreds of thousands of miles of road, 40,000 schools, 3,500 playgrounds and sports venues, and teaching in 50,000 classrooms.
Ron Wilson, an attorney from New Orleans, then painted a bleak picture of the prospects for fair and accurate local elections in New Orleans in February of 2006. He asked, “How do you conduct elections when over half the election commissioners cannot be found, when a vast number of the polling places have been destroyed, and when over 400,000 of the areas residents have not returned to the area and approximately 350,000 of them are African-American?” Wilson then suggested that local policymakers might not want certain residents to return in time for the election. “There is no rush from the mayor [of New Orleans] to hold elections, because he knows he would lose.” Wilson pointed to the fact that the more affluent areas of the city have been given higher rehabilitation priority, so that they may return sooner. He also added that it is very telling that no provisions have been made as of yet for evacuees to cast ballots.
Professor David Barron pointed out the irony that the United States was able to assist thousands of displaced Iraqis in the United States, who have no intention of returning to Iraq, in voting in Iraqi parliamentary elections, but it is very likely there will not be a comprehensive plan to help the displaced citizens of the Gulf region cast ballots.
Wilson was followed on the panel by Miriam Gohara from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Gohara explained that the real tragedy is that “the people who were most vulnerable prior to Katrina have become more vulnerable.” Gohara is the Assistant Director of the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Project. Gohara highlighted some of the abuses of prisoners, some of who had not yet stood trial, following Katrina. She explained that prisoners and detainees were repeatedly beaten and kicked, as well as subjected to emotional abuse. Gohara believes that this type of abuse was permitted by prison officials abuse, because they “were confident that there were no watch dogs.” Fortunately groups like Human Rights Watch and the NAACP stepped in to correct some of the abuses. She added, “If there was a strong civil rights division at the Department of Justice, there may have been a place for these people or their families to turn to, and the abuse would have been less likely to occur.”
Prof. Barron then addressed some of the federalism issues that this crisis created. He warned of the need to be careful of federal policies likely to “recontribute to the very problem that existed before Katrina.” He suggested that current thinking regarding rebuilding is problematic, because people are focusing on the partnerships between the federal, state and local authorities when the real partner in this situation, according to Barron, “is the electorate.” He explained that it is important to watch the decisions made by the policy makers to see which portions of the electorate they choose to partner with. He added that African-Americans were already migrating from New Orleans before Katrina, because the economic structure of the city could not support them.
Barron said, at this point, it is “not useful to think who should doing what, but what they should be doing.” He added that there needs to collaboration between the federal, state, and local governments because the federal government has money, “but they don’t understand the local needs the way the others do.” He did add that “it is obvious that the federal government has to take the lead in rebuilding the levy system in New Orleans, and it is shameful that this many days out there is not a plan to do anything.”
The final member of the panel, Morgan Williams, is a 2L from Tulane who is one of the co-founders of the Student Hurricane Relief Network. He provided a ground view of the problems facing survivors of the hurricane. He explained that there are some survivors who have yet to receive their FEMA benefits because of complications with federal forms and evacuees who are being forced to relocate after filing for benefits. Williams also addressed the growing eviction problem facing evacuee, putting the problem in an interesting light by explaining that landlords are also facing difficult choices. Without an eviction, landlords cannot get into their properties to clean up the damage caused by Katrina and the longer they wait, the more exasperated their situation becomes. Many do not know where their tenants are or if they are likely to return. Williams said that all parties and the state legislature will need to work together to find solutions that attempt protect the interests of all. Williams added that the prospects of finding those solutions are unlikely given how the legal landscape, including important legal aid organizations, was decimated by Katrina.
Following this panel, the attendees participated in several organizing panels, during which students shared programming ideas and worked on developing strategic plans for their organizations.
The conference concluded with a reception and keynote speech by Rep. Barney Frank. Frank’s keynote was both humorous and pointed, addressing issues related to Katrina, gay marriage, federalism, and the Supreme Court. He said that Katrina brought into sharp focus the economic inequalities in this country and highlighted his recently introduced bill to limi
t the salaries of officials of public corporations.
His most candid comments were saved for the topics of gay marriage and the hypocrisy of the conservative movement in America. On gay marriage, he predicted that the Massachusetts legislature will approve a marriage equity bill in the near future, because the parade of horribles predicted by anti-marriage advocates have not been realized, nor will they. But when asked whether litigators should use the full-faith and credit clause and expand marriage rights to same-sex couples outside of Massachusetts, Frank said no. “Everything has to be incremental, and America is not ready for it yet. If pressed, marriage equality would be resoundingly defeated.” He equated it to the warning of civil rights groups during the 1960’s after the passage of the public accommodations portion of the Civil Rights Act. He felt that civil rights groups discouraged voting rights workers from taking advantage of the new protections by attempting to desegregate lunch counters and restaurants, because it would only detract from the important voting rights work that was being done.
Frank then commented that if the Massachusetts legislature does approve same-sex marriages, conservatives would immediately call for federal legislation to override that action. Frank claims that this is the hypocrisy of the current conservative movement-supporting federalism when it suits their needs, but denouncing states’ rights when it does not. He added that this hypocrisy demonstrates that conservatives have a “substantive agenda that they are trying to dress up in democracy.”
When asked how he felt as a legislator to see the Supreme Court use a narrow reading of the Commerce Clause to overturn acts like the Gun Free School and the Violence Against Woman Acts, he surprised some in the audience by sayingthat the Rehnquist Court’s jurisprudence in this area was not as disastrous as many progressives make it out to be. “States should be able to make their own laws. If California, home of the One-Terminator governor, wants to allow people to bring guns within so many feet of a school, that should be their right.” He did add, however, that the Court’s 11th Amendment jurisprudence was horrific, with exceptions for Tennessee v. Lane and Nevada v. Hicks. He said that the Court, including the “orginalists,” was using a broad reading of the 11th Amendment to strike down some of the most important anti-discrimination laws in this country. He then expressed concern about the direction the Court would go if Judge Samuel Alito was confirmed. When asked if he thought Alito would be confirmed, Frank predicted, “his nomination is likely to be filibustered, but ultimately he will be confirmed.”
In the end, conference organizers Jeff Jamison (3L), Erin Ashwell (3L), Alyssa Saunders (1L), and Amy Barker (1L) chalked up the success of the conference to an important mix of support from the Dean’s Office and the ACS national office, the work of the ACS board, the tools and connections that the conference provided attendees, and the enthusiasm of the conferees. It is hoped that this conference will serve as a prototype for an ACS national student leadership conference to be hosted at HLS in the near future.
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