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.



An Arcane And Destructive Practice

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 2:04pm
Yesterday, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities conducted a hearing seeking to address the problems stemming from corporal punishment in public schools — the first Congressional hearing on this important issue since 1992. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch (HRW) submitted a statement for the record that discussed the ongoing corporal punishment of American public school children and its impact on their educational success.

A Milestone with Miles to Go

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 1:24pm

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama. This critical law fixed a 2007 Supreme Court decision that…

Teach (and Treat) Our Children Well

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 1:19pm

(Originally posted on Huffington Post.)

As a society, we adhere to the basic premise that, in the proper setting, children will learn what they are taught. And it follows that in learning to become positive and involved adults, children need…

Gay Marriage in N.J.: Which Side of History Will You Be On?

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 5:55pm

(Originally posted in the New Jersey Star-Ledger.)

As our state legislature gears up to vote on marriage equality in the lame-duck session, we have one question for lawmakers: Which side of history do you want to be on?

A state commission…

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.

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.

Equality in Our Pay Envelopes

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 5:47pm

Today marks the 46th anniversary of President Kennedy's signing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. That historic act signified our nation's commitment to ensuring that women are not paid less than men for equal work. Upon signing the bill, President…

It’s Common Cents – Close the Wage Gap for Women

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 8:59pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Does 22 cents mean much to you? It should, if like most Americans, you need every cent from your paycheck that you have rightfully earned.

Unfortunately, 45 years after the enactment of the Equal…

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.

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