Last Week’s Surprisingly Deep Victory for LGBT Workers

Last Week’s Surprisingly Deep Victory for LGBT Workers

This post was originally published at Jacobin.

Kate Redburn–

Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decision brings employment law in line with public opinion: a majority of Americans favor employment protections for LGBT people, and in 2015 the Harris Poll revealed that nearly a quarter of Americans believed that these protections were already enshrined in federal law.

The opinion, like today’s DACA decision, came as a shock to legal observers. The Supreme Court is a deeply conservative institution, currently occupied by five solidly conservative justices. It seemed beyond hope to imagine that a majority would deliver the “landmark ruling” they did, even though advocates stood on extremely solid legal ground: they persuasively applied conservative methods of statutory interpretation to Title VII.

The surprise decision has been met with much enthusiasm, and some skepticism, from supporters of LGBT justice. Make no mistake: the opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, could have been much better. It should have included language linking the LGBT movement to the broader federal civil rights framework, acknowledging the history of discrimination against LGBT people. Instead, we got a skeletal affirmation, that in formalist textual terms, means sexual orientation– and gender identity–based discrimination qualify as discrimination “because of sex.” (Courts have already ruled that the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual stereotypes, but Justice Gorsuch reasoned from the meaning of the words “because of sex,” and found that discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals is always rooted in bias about sex.)

But this is still a victory worth celebrating.

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Gideon and the Promise of Right to Counsel

This week, we’re sharing two discussions on John Whitlow’s recently published article reflecting on New York’s right to counsel in evictions proceedings. Our contributors share visions of right to counsel that move beyond due process rights. The contributors show that right to counsel campaigns are part of broader movements that seek to address the material deprivation underlying the need for counsel in the first place.

John Sadek and Sam Natale –

373 U.S. 335. For many public defenders, these eight characters are immediately recognizable. Better known as Gideon v. Wainwright—the famous Supreme Court case that established a constitutional right to public defenders in criminal cases. Many defenders have those same eight characters tattooed as a mark of vocation and a symbol of dedication to the work.

Gideon similarly marks the whole profession: it is our foundational myth, which is retold as follows. Clarence Gideon, facing a felony charge, asked the trial court to appoint an attorney to represent him—a request the trial court denied, stating that the court could not appoint a lawyer. After conviction and without counsel from his prison cell, Gideon handwrote and filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. Yale-educated attorney Abe Fortas then took on the case and persuaded the nine justices, who unanimously ordered a new trial for Clarence Gideon. They held that the assistance of counsel in a criminal trial is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, a right that requires appointed counsel when a person cannot otherwise afford a lawyer.

Liberal law schools everywhere champion this story as a testament to the will and fortitude of a man who kept pushing for his rights, and a Supreme Court, that, in their wisdom, agreed and made this right the law of the land. The moral of this story is that an individual with faith in the system and a talented lawyer with the right ideas can change everything. However, this myth is missing the role of movements in establishing this right—the decades of union and anti-racist organizing that led to all but eight states adopting right to counsel far before Gideon was even decided.

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Moving Beyond Liberal Legal Rights: An Expansive Vision of Right to Counsel

This week, we’re sharing two discussions on John Whitlow’s recently published article reflecting on New York’s right to counsel in evictions proceedings. Our contributors share visions of right to counsel that move beyond due process rights. The contributors show that right to counsel campaigns are part of broader movements that seek to address the material deprivation underlying the need for counsel in the first place.

John Whitlow –

In his seminal article about the relation of Gideon to the crisis of mass incarceration, Paul Butler poses the following question: “When the problem is lack of a right, one keeps going to court until a court declares the right. When the problem is material deprivation suffered on the basis of race and class, where, exactly, does one go for the fix?” As an increasing number of cities enact the right to counsel in eviction proceedings, it is imperative that we apply Butler’s query to the deep crisis of affordable housing. To what extent does a right to counsel in this context have the capacity to move beyond the confines of individual Housing Court cases, to the structural underpinnings of gentrification and displacement? Can the right to counsel be wielded in a manner that builds the power of an emergent tenant movement that is mobilizing for redistributive policy reforms and is fighting to prioritize the use value of housing over its value as real estate? In the following paragraphs—which are a distillation of the arguments made in my recently-published article—I address these questions, pointing out how the right to counsel is being deployed expansively by tenants and organizers in New York City as part of a broad-based effort to democratize and de-commodify housing.

Within the liberal legal tradition, rights have typically operated as guarantors of formal, rather than structural, equality. That is, these formal rights by and large fail to disturb—and may even reify—the structural arrangements that underpin social inequalities and relations of domination and subordination. Because the political emancipation that theoretically flows from liberal rights regimes is located squarely within the prevailing social order, its benefits typically do not redound to those at the bottom of that order. A narrow focus on legal rights in this context tends to individualize inequality and stratification, and in the process legitimizes the status quo by failing to contend with how power is distributed in society. Wendy Brown has put this set of concerns about legal rights succinctly: “Rights in liberalism . . . tend to depoliticize the conditions they articulate.”

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Executive Action as Power Building: A Response to Professor Doerfler

Luke Herrine–

Ryan Doerfler has an article over at Jacobin reacting in part to my argument that current law enables the Secretary of Education to cancel as much student debt as she wants by using her enforcement discretion. Professor Doerfler is not so much arguing against my proposal (for which he has some flattering words) as he is using it as an example of a baleful tendency among progressive elites. The tendency is to use legal ingenuity to find ways that a progressive president can “bring about much, if not all, of the change that we need” even if Congress does not cooperate. Professor Doerfler rightly warns that lawyerly craftiness can only get us so far, especially as the judiciary tilts towards becoming little more than an operational arm of those opposed to exactly that change. He also rightly points out that focusing on the ability of a progressive president (ideally a brilliant lawyer) with a team of progressive experts to work around the limits of the current system diverts attention from the task of building the working-class-led coalition necessary to change the system. It replaces power building with deference to experts’ power.

It was somewhat surreal to see my argument used as an example of this tendency, since it is one that I also oppose. I can understand why my argument, taken in isolation, could be seen as an example of such anti-political politics. All the more so when it is not in isolation, but rather written up at the American Prospect alongside other arguments for creative uses of executive action under the rubric of a “Day One Agenda”. But, I must insist, focusing on the ability of a President to cancel student debt (or to do other progressive things) without further congressional action does not require giving up on building the power, whether to put together legislative majorities or to create a true workers’ party or any number of other things. More than that: in an environment in which left power-building institutions are still atrophied, teasing out creative uses of executive power is essential to the latter task. A President dedicated to building power can use the Secretary of Education’s authority to cancel student debt as one tool to do so.

(For what it’s worth: others at Jacobin seem to agree, given their own version of a Day One Agenda, which includes exactly this proposal.)

Moreover, the concreteness of the demand for debt cancellation is useful as an organizing tool. In fact, organizing that uses the demand of student debt cancellation as part of the strategy to build working class power is already ongoing. It is because of this organizing that the idea of a jubilee is on the agenda in the first place. And it is out of this organizing that the idea for using the Secretary of Education’s enforcement discretion to wipe out all (or most) public student loan debt without congressional action took root.

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The Law and Political Economy of Sex Work: Symposium

The Law and Political Economy of Sex Work: Symposium

This post is part of our symposium on the political economy of sex work. Read the rest of the symposium here.

Lorelei Lee –

I am approaching my 20th year of living in the world as a sex worker. This year, presidential candidates are being asked whether they believe sex work should be decriminalized. Decrim NY and the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition have introduced decriminalization bills in New York State and Washington, D.C. California passed SB 233, joining a handful of other states in prohibiting the use of condoms as evidence in prostitution arrests, and expanding a San Francisco policy that prevents police from arresting sex workers who choose to report client violence. The public conversation is shifting. That shift is the result of hundreds of years of resistance and movement building by people who trade and have traded sex. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith explain in their new book, Revolting Prostitutes, “sex workers have shaped and contributed to social movements across the world.” Despite state, local, and new federal laws promoting profiling, surveillance, and exclusion of people in the sex trades from fundraising and communication platforms and from otherwise-public spaces, sex workers have continued to speak, to build coalitions, to insist on being heard.

People interested in law and political economy have a particular reason to listen to people in the sex trades. The conversations that sex workers are having are about markets, work, and coercion under neoliberalism. They are critiques of a legal system that implements policing to keep the “sacred” out of markets while enabling corporations to profit on the caging of human beings. In this symposium, Gilda Merlot will explain how the U.S. failure to “end demand” for migrant labor through the Immigration Reform and Control Act illuminates the unlikelihood of “ending demand” for sexual labor through criminalization. Aziza Ahmed and Jason Jackson will bring a political economy lens to sex work, critiquing the moral claims that justify criminalization. Finally, suprihmbé will unpack the false binary between the “agency/empowerment” of sex work and the “oppression/coercion” of trafficking.

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Teaching Penal Abolition

Amna Akbar –

In April, the New York Times ran a profile on abolitionist visionary and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and the Harvard Law Review published an entire issue on prison abolition. This fall, the University of Texas Law School Human Rights Center is hosting a conference on abolition. The new journalistic outlet The Appeal runs abolitionist pieces as a matter of course, and outlets like Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Jacobin have too. Podcasts like Chris Hayes’s Why Is This Happening, The Appeal’s Justice in America, and Beyond Prisons have featured probing conversations on abolition with leading organizer-intellectuals Rachel Herzing and Mariame Kaba. And behind it all is a growing movement of abolitionist organizing and campaigns, calling to defund and delegitimize police and prisons, shift resources towards the social wage, and build alternative methods to dealing with the pains and crises of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy that prisons and police now deflect and exacerbate: Critical Resistance, BYP100No New Jails Seattle, Mijente, Survived and Punished, INCITE, and more.  

Like the movements abolitionist ideas emerge from and are circulating in, abolitionist praxis is shaping the urgency and discourse around criminal law reform. A primary difference between abolitionists and mainstream reformers is the end goal: Abolitionists work toward eliminating prisons and police, and building an alternate and varied set of political, economic, and social arrangements or institutions to respond to many of the social ills to which prison and police now respond. Importantly, abolitionists see their struggle as part of the unfinished work of transforming  the afterlives of slavery in economic, political, and social life.

Abolitionist thinking is central to contemporary debates over how to interpret the meaning of the criminal law and our criminal processes and enforcement mechanisms: it is literally part of the subject of “criminal law” today. We should teach it that way. More broadly law scholars teaching any course touching on criminal law and procedure, police and prisons, borders and border enforcement, should teach abolition. I have written before, including with Jocelyn Simonson, about how to teach criminal law differently, in this movement moment, and attune to the centrality of racialized and anti-black violence to our criminal legal system. Here, I share some notes and resources on teaching abolition. In my experience, teaching abolition requires study, but the study and teaching are more fruitful than I can say in this brief post. Teaching and learning abolition has deepened my study of the history of the United States and the unfinished social movements that define its shape, expanded my imagination of the future, and profoundly reshaped my sense of the work ahead. 

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Organizing Towards a New Vision of Community Justice

NB: This post is part of an ongoing series on LPE & Social Movements. For the framing pieces, see here and here

Raj Jayadev and Pilar Weiss – 

social-movementsThe current criminal legal system has consistently weaponized the role of “the community” in its proceedings – often claiming that decisions have been made to achieve justice for “the community” or to protect “community” safety. As increased awareness of the incarceration crisis across the country has changed some of the dynamics in our public discourse, similar patterns invoking “the community” have remained. Mainstream political candidates openly claim they are progressive and offer reformist reforms in the name of “the community.” The experiences of people of color, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants in the criminal legal system have of course been that these claims of action and reform in the name of “the community” are not reflective of their actual needs or priorities.

In contrast, all across the country, activists and organizers are building a grassroots movement that is seeking to realize a different vision of justice, one that is based on a radical repositioning of “the community” and its power. This is a fight based on survival but also one seeking to shift power from those who have historically held it to those who have been historically disempowered, under-resourced, targeted by the system, and most impacted by structural inequalities. Law professor Jocelyn Simonson has written previously on the place of “the people” in criminal procedure, reimagining a more inclusive role of the public in the criminal process. Similarly, as the movement to end incarceration continues to develop and gains momentum, the organizing that fuels it is actively contesting the place of “community.” This repositioning of community extends beyond the immediate actions in front of us; it situates the community as the drivers of what the ultimate realization of a new vision of justice, healing, and power will look like.

In this piece, we hope to describe some examples of the spectrum of organizing tactics and practices that are currently part of both the repositioning of community and the creation of pathways towards the transformative vision abolitionist organizers have set out. As two long-time community organizers who work with dozens of community-based organizations and hundreds of organizers and families through our work with Silicon Valley De-Bug, the Community Justice Exchange, the National Participatory Defense Network, and the National Bail Fund Network, we are privileged to be part of the daily work and also see a developing arc. When we, as organizers, refer to “the community,” we are referring to individuals and their families, neighborhood, and those with a common interest and/or shared identity who are all directly impacted by structural inequalities. We don’t assume that there are any definitive answers at this point, but instead that we are in the middle of a process of finding ways to take power and define what justice in the name of “community” actually means.

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Debtor Organizing Against Neoliberalism

NB: This post is part of an ongoing series on LPE & Social Movements. For the framing pieces, see here and here

Luke Herrine – 

social-movementsNeoliberalism is in crisis. For the first time in decades, alternatives of both terrifying and exhilarating varieties are on the table. The more democratic and humane alternative will only prevail if well organized social movements directly challenge the ruling class’s material base of power.

What will those movements look like? If history is any guide, they will have to be collectives of people whose everyday suffering can be transformed into relatively short-term campaigns for material betterment, medium-term campaigns for legal reform, and the longer-term work of building solidarity necessary to put truly transformative change on the table. The green shoots in the labor movement, the formations in and around the Movement for Black Lives, and increasingly energetic climate activism, among others, provide some reason for hope. Less discussed has been the possibility of debtor organizing, the subject of an inspiring new report from the Institute on Inequality and Democracy authored by Hannah Appel, Sa Whitley, and Caitlin Klein. The report should be read carefully by LPE sympathizers with an interest in creative practice: potential for legal strategies abound.

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Social Movements in the Struggle for Redistribution

NB: This post is part of an ongoing series on LPE & Social Movements. For the framing pieces, see here and here

Aziza Ahmed – 

social-movementsIn their recent and compelling contribution to the LPE blog, Amna Akbar, Sameer Ashar, and Jocelyn Simonson push us to consider how a left political agenda ought to be crafted. They aim to give specific content to Jedediah’s Purdy’s observation that the Constitution’s core principles have been interpreted to entrench current power structures, thus undermining progressive efforts at redistribution. And, they seek to provide a path for those who agree when Sam Moyn claims that it is not courts but legislatures that will help realize a progressive vision. But how? The answer, they argue lies in turning to social movements. A left legal agenda must, they argue, “be grounded in solidarities with social movement and left organizations, largely outside of formal legal and elite academic spaces.”

The idea that social movements should be central to progressive agendas is appealing, I respond with two questions that aim push this discussion further. First, it is important to explicitly consider what constitutes a social movement – which voices rise to the top, who sets the agenda, and who garners resources? These questions emerge from my own work on legal reform efforts by feminist social movements where the question of who can speak for women, how left legal activism ought to take shape, and what redistributive goals should take priority over others has splintered feminist organizations and has had material consequences, often negative, on the lives of very girls and women they purport to support. Second, and relatedly, legal realism teaches us that law exists in the foreground and background to shape our capacity to bargain, strategize, and organize. I wonder how lawyers and legal strategy constitute the redistributive imagination of left organizations?

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Coming of Age at the End of History

NB: This post is part of an ongoing series on LPE & Social Movements. For the framing pieces, see here and here

John Whitlow – 

social-movementsIn 1989, in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union and just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama argued, famously, that we had reached “the End of History.’ Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism, Fukuyama averred that the triad of free markets, liberal democracy, and consumerist culture had become universal, enveloping the planet so thoroughly as to flatten historical time. There would be no more revolutionary upheaval, no more transformative social change. An ever-expanding capitalism, governed by some variant of representative democracy, was the only game in town, and it was here to stay.

I was fifteen when Fukuyama penned “The End of History,” and – as much as I am loathe to admit it – I am a child of neoliberalism. I was born at the end of 1974, just as New York City entered its fateful descent into fiscal crisis. I grew up in Baltimore during the Reagan years, a witness to the ways in which racial capitalism eviscerated the city’s black and white working class, leaving many of my friends and their families adrift in an economy and a place that had been structurally abandoned. All the while, I was indoctrinated into a public policy common sense of austerity, privatization, and an expanding carceral state; as well as a hollowed-out notion of citizenship in which our subjectivities are constructed primarily through individual-entrepreneurial, rather than solidaristic-democratic, terms.

Looking back, I am struck by how much of this I’ve imbibed, how much it has ordered what I’ve regarded as accepted knowledge, even as I’ve attempted to resist it. For most of my adult life, I’ve been a poverty lawyer/movement lawyer/community lawyer (the terminological distinctions matter, but not so much for the purposes of this essay), and, at times (especially recently) I have found myself questioning how I’ve gone about my work. Of course I knew that the pronouncements of Fukuyama and Thatcher were bankrupt – that they were the product of a politicized theology – but to what extent have my own political, intellectual, and professional horizons been limited by an unwitting, silent acceptance of that same theology?

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