Blog of Rights

Deborah J.

Deborah Vagins is senior legislative counsel at the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. She leads the Washington Legislative Office’s civil rights advocacy efforts and develops pro-active strategies on pending federal legislation and executive branch actions concerning racial justice, education, employment discrimination, voting rights, and disability rights. Vagins has been instrumental in advocating for major civil rights legislation, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and the 2006 Voting Rights Act reauthorization, among others..


Before joining the ACLU in 2005, Vagins served as the acting deputy general counsel and senior attorney-advisor to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Prior to that, Vagins was an associate at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, where she litigated high-profile nationwide civil rights class actions. She represented more than 1.5 million women from Wal-Mart in the largest Title VII employment discrimination class action in history. She was also an associate at Sidley & Austin in the civil, criminal and constitutional litigation practice group and founded the firm’s Committee for the Recruitment and Retention of Women. Earlier Vagins worked at EMILY’s List and clerked at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. Vagins graduated magna cum laude from the Washington College of Law at American University. She received her B.A. with distinction from Swarthmore College.



Mayor Cory Booker: Please See Me After Class

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 4:51pm

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

In his six months in office, President Obama has disappointed social justice advocates with his positions on issues like gay rights, warrantless wiretapping and, most recently, indefinite detention. We all want to see our president succeed; he generates hope and excitement, and embodies long-awaited change. But we also feel conflicted – while we're sympathetic to the many obstacles he faces to creating meaningful change, the president still needs a resolute front to hold his feet to the fire.

Newark, N.J., a microcosm of Obama’s plight, is a petri dish of a place with a visionary leader who inspires hope. When Mayor Cory Booker took office three years ago, he promised long-suffering Newarkers that he would capitalize on untapped resources, restore public trust in government and honor the civil liberties he has always held close to his heart. He also implored us to hold him accountable, knowing that government depends on citizens to keep it in line.

Mayor Booker has a full plate: reducing crime, confronting poverty and educating students whose schools have for too long failed them. But, in Newark, every plate needs a big scoop of civil liberties. After all, few cities have as extensive histories of civil liberties abuses against its citizens — the 1967 rebellion and riots were fueled in large part by police brutality. The mayor personally experienced violations of free speech and other rights under the prior leadership of the city, as the acclaimed film Street Fight documented.

Liberty and Economic Justice For All

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 12:45pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Now more than ever, a family’s basic economic survival depends on pay equity. Without the ability to bring home every dollar rightfully earned without regard to gender, race, religion, age, or disability, there can be no economic justice for workers and true equality for all Americans.

President Obama probably best explained the importance of the fundamental fairness of equal pay to our country’s economic security when he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a bill that restores the right of employees to challenge ongoing pay discrimination. He noted at the White House:

So in signing this bill today, I intend to send a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone. That there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces, and that it's not just unfair and illegal — but bad for business — to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability. And that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory, or footnote in a casebook — it's about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives: their ability to make a living and care for their families and achieve their goals.

Ultimately, though, equal pay isn't just an economic issue for millions of Americans and their families, it's a question of who we are — and whether we're truly living up to our fundamental ideals. Whether we'll do our part, as generations before us, to ensure those words put on paper some 200 years ago really mean something — to breathe new life into them with the more enlightened understandings of our time.
Today, thanks to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the right to challenge an unlawful pay gap in court has been restored. Unfortunately, the pay gap itself still exists — women still on average only earn 78 cents for every dollar that men earn for doing the same job. The numbers are even worse for women of color.

Who Really Won the Election?  Democracy Did.

Who Really Won the Election? Democracy Did.

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 4:00pm

On Tuesday, despite the massive hurdles put in front of voters since 2010 – citizens nonetheless, fought through voter suppression tactics, misinformation, long lines, then longer lies, and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to have their voices…

ACLU to Speak at Briefing on Workplace Discrimination Against LGBT Employees

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office & Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 4:54pm

On Thursday, the ACLU, as well as partner organizations, will speak at a congressional briefing hosted by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) on the subject of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the workplace and the steps that can…

Leaving Women Out in the Cold

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 10:02am

This week, the ACLU called on Baltimore City to stop leaving women out in the cold. Literally. When the city’s only emergency homeless shelter is full, it provides “overflow” shelter beds to men — and not women. Turned…

Turning a Blind Eye: The Human Rights Crisis in Puerto Rico

Turning a Blind Eye: The Human Rights Crisis in Puerto Rico

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 12:26pm

Today, there are American citizens who are being assaulted by police during peaceful protests, but you likely have heard very little about it. The Puerto Rico Police Department (PRPD), the second largest police department in the country, is out…

Time's Running Out to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act -- Contact Your Senator Today!

Time's Running Out to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act -- Contact Your Senator Today!

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 2:40pm

Call, email and tweet your senator today. As the clock ticks down in the 111th Congress, there is little time left to finish critical pieces of legislation.

An Arcane, Destructive — and Still Legal — Practice

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 5:10pm

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

On June 29, 2010, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) introduced the "Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act," H.R. 5628. This bill would ban the use of corporal punishment in public schools…

Corzine on My Mind

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 12:00am

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

All of America watched New Jersey's gubernatorial election. Some interpreted the result as a referendum on Barack Obama's leadership, but everyone voting in our state understood that the Democrat…

The Democracy Restoration Act — Restoring a Civil Right Denied

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 2:54pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

As the Supreme Court has indicated, "[n]o right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined." Unfortunately, in America today, millions of citizens work, pay taxes, live in our communities and bring up families, yet they are without a voice. According to a 2008 ACLU/Brennan Center report, an estimated 5.3 million citizens cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction, and nearly 4 million of those citizens have been released from prison and are living and working in the community.

Worse still, felony disfranchisement laws are rooted in the Jim Crow era and were intended to bar minorities from voting. The impact of these laws continues today. Nationwide, 13 percent of African American men have lost the right to vote — a rate seven times the national average. Latino citizens are also disproportionately disfranchised because they are over-represented in the criminal justice system. In turn, this has impacted the families of those who are disfranchised and the communities in which they reside by reducing their collective political voice.

Confusion Surrounding State Laws

States have vastly different approaches to allowing those with criminal convictions to vote, which often compound the problems further. For example, some states disfranchise some, but not all, citizens with criminal convictions, while others allow voting after a sentence is completed or after release from prison. Two states, Virginia and Kentucky, permanently disfranchise citizens with felony convictions unless the state approves individual rights restoration; two states, Maine and Vermont, allow all persons with felony convictions to vote, even while incarcerated; all other states fall somewhere in between.

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