It isn’t news that the Trump administration has kept ACLU attorneys working at breakneck speed for the past three years. In 2019 alone, we saw historic moments and victories—from defeating the citizenship question on the 2020 census and bringing the first trans civil rights case to the Supreme Court, to blocking a wave of abortion bans and many of the administration’s attempts to dismantle the asylum system. To name a few.
Here are some of our attorneys’ takes on 2019 and the year ahead—what’s changed for the better and for the worse, and how the outcome of the 2020 presidential election will affect the fight for civil rights and liberties in years to come.
Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, LGBT and HIV Project
What was your favorite moment of 2019?
A lot happened so it’s hard to pick just one moment, but for me one of the most memorable was the October 8 argument for the Aimee Stephens case at the Supreme Court. Obviously the moment itself was historic. Working on the case was pivotal in my life and my work. But even more than the hearing itself, I’ll never forget the feeling of coming out of the Supreme Court and seeing a crowd of trans people and allies chanting to Aimee while we walked across the plaza. It’s a special reminder that it’s not about what happens in court, it’s about how we move forward.
What was the biggest challenge?
This was a challenging year. Two things stand out: The Supreme Court taking on the Title VII cases and the increasing attacks on trans people in sports.
When we heard about the Title VII cases in April, it was a devastating blow. Aimee had already won in the lower court, and we didn’t want the Supreme Court to undo her win. It’s difficult existing in this political context with so many attacks on the trans community and going up to the Court knowing that no matter what, something would be lost—whether something rhetorical or in the public discourse or in the legal outcome of the case itself.
There’s a long way to go no matter who’s in the White House.
There’s also been a rise in attacks on the idea of trans people participating in sports. It’s disappointing seeing people we’d expect to be allies side with our opponents. It’s just another context that’s being leveraged in public conversations and policy debates to argue that trans people aren’t “real” and that we don’t deserve to participate equally in society. It’s painful and the people who are going to be the most hurt are the trans youth who are being singled out and demeaned by the adult lawmakers who are supposed to protect them.
How will the outcome of the 2020 election affect trans rights?
There’s a long way to go no matter who’s in the White House. But for trans rights, the shift from Obama to Trump was drastic. If Trump loses, we’ll continue to sue the government because the government will continue to discriminate, and it will take a lot of work to undo the anti-trans agenda of the last three years. But hopefully we will have a president that is less concerned with decimating us and our lives and we can work towards rebuilding some protections. No matter what happens, our resolve to fight and defend our communities will persist.
How do you unwind after preparing for a big case?
I operate at a constant state of stress, so it’s always a struggle. Maybe I haven’t done a good job of unwinding. I do love theatre, going to shows, engaging in creative processes to get me out of my head.
What got you into this work?
As a queer, trans person with access to resources I felt that I could serve my community by working within systems of power to disrupt and distribute power. It isn’t always easy and I don’t always do it perfectly but I could never imagine doing any other work.
Deputy Director of the Reproductive Freedom Project
What was the biggest challenge of 2019?
2019 was the year of the abortion ban, so it’s not so much one challenge in particular but the onslaught—we’re fighting battles at the federal and state level in a rapid succession. The states have been emboldened by the Trump administration and by changes in the judiciary, and it’s been a breathless fight against their attacks on abortion and access to contraception. Some of our most important victories of the year included blocking the abortion bans in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah.
2019 was the year of the abortion ban.
Still, in 2019 there were also some great legislative victories for reproductive rights. A number of states have passed proactive measures that expand access. A perfect example is Maine, where the reproductive rights and justice movement got the state to pass a law expanding who can provide abortions and not just limit provision to doctors but to expand it to advanced practice clinicians. Another new law in Maine ensures that people can access abortion with Medicaid as insurance if they qualify. States like Maine will be a haven for abortion access if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned.
What will 2020 look like for abortion rights?
The attacks on abortion will continue in 2020, unfortunately. The states restricting access have been doing so for decades. And even if there’s a change in the presidential administration, the federal judiciary has now been changed for generations, so states that want to pass restrictions are still going to do so in an aggressive manner, in hopes that the courts will uphold their restrictions. So I think 2020 will be very busy.
Most people in this country support reproductive freedom, but anti-abortion politicians have their own agenda and refuse to listen to the majority of their constituents. Restricting abortion has always been used as a political tool that has been wielded by some politicians regardless of what the public wants.
What got you interested in reproductive freedom?
Ever since I was a little girl, I was always interested in fighting for what was fair. My mom was a feminist and a stay-at-home mom who took me to political rallies, and I used to babysit for a mom who worked at Planned Parenthood. These strong women instilled in me the idea that people should be able to make decisions about their own bodies and everyone should be treated equally in society. Eventually I went to law school because I wanted to use the law to promote social justice.
Is there a particular client from 2019 who stands out?
The staff at the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in Kentucky. Dr. Marshall, who owns it, and staff are amazing people and our heroes. They make sure patients get the care they need with compassion and dignity. They’ve endured so much in addition to the legal onslaught—including anti-abortion people blockading the clinic doors and vandalizing the clinic. They are my heroes.
Personally, my favorite moment of 2019 was calling the clinic and telling them the good news that the judge blocked the state abortion ban.
Director of the Voting Rights Project
What was your favorite moment of 2019?
The census win. From the beginning I thought we had the better argument, but there were so many predictions that we would lose. I understand why we got those predictions, because we were the underdog, but it was hard not to let that seep in and affect my outlook. When we won, I felt vindicated.
What was the most important legal win?
Again I’d say the census case. If we lost, representation would have shifted away from diverse states and areas, and many communities would have lost their fair share of federal funding. It was a massive case of major significance.
No one believed that the Trump administration wanted to add the citizenship question to support voting rights. The Court’s decision affirmed how much we need honesty from the government on why it’s doing what it’s doing. And the case was a test for the Supreme Court, to see whether it would stand up to the kind of lawlessness that has become standard in this administration. It was nerve-inducing that four justices were willing to go along, but the center held.
No one believed that the Trump administration wanted to add the citizenship question to support voting rights.
The census case was also litigated at a breakneck pace—from a trial decision to the Supreme Court in only three months. It was maybe the most significant challenge in my professional life. I’m still recovering.
How do you handle stress when you’re on the road?
I always, always buy WiFi on planes, and take my noise canceling headphones with me. Sometimes I’ll get a Bloody Mary (virgin!) so I can work throughout the flight. When I’m flying out of New York, I get the same bad Italian hoagie from the CEBO Express in the airport—something I probably wouldn’t eat anywhere else.
How will the presidential election affect the Voting Rights Project?
I don’t think the outcome of 2020 will affect our work, because most of our work is in the states. We need to modernize our states’ antiquated registration and voting systems. Those are bad now and they’re going to be bad no matter who wins in 2020. We’re going to have to do that work and also focus on redistricting after the census happens, as local, state, and federal districts get redrawn all around the country. So we have a busy 2020 and a busy 2021 ahead of us, regardless.
What do you look forward to in 2020?
Election season is always an exciting time to be a voting rights lawyer. It can be challenging because you know in advance that it’s going to be very busy. But there’s a lot you don’t know that’s going to pop up—you know things will pop up but you don’t know what. It’s challenging to stay ready for that but I feel like every election I’ve been here, we’ve done some of our best work in that emergency, rapid response posture. I’m looking forward to it.
Director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project
What is one moment from 2019 that stands out to you?
I’ll cheat and tell you two. The first was when we blocked the Remain in Mexico policy (or Forced Return to Mexico, or Migrant Protection Protocols, as it goes by a lot of names). We knew the policy would be a disaster and we were really glad to block it.
The second was when a higher court allowed the policy to be implemented while an appeal is pending. Under this stay roughly 60,000 people have been dumped in Mexico in awful conditions. Cartels are preying on them, waiting for people to get off the buses and kidnapping them immediately. It all goes to show what an awful policy it is and how important it was to challenge it. The fact that we were able to stop it briefly was an important victory. Now the litigation continues.
What was the biggest challenge?
Protecting the asylum system. The administration has a multi-pronged strategy to attack asylum and basically eradicate the system unilaterally. A major focus of our work in the last year has been taking on these policies—we’ve challenged the standard for asylum, gang violence exceptions, detention of asylum seekers. There’s the first asylum ban, the second asylum ban, Return to Mexico, and more. A whole set of cases.
How has IRP’s work changed this year?
I hope that the sympathy and support we’ve seen for immigrant communities will continue to carry through.
Our team has built a new set of muscles as we adapt to new challenges—challenges that would have been extraordinary and unusual in the past, which are now the norm. The administration often announces drastic policy changes with little or no warning, and the pressure is on our team to figure out what they’re doing, to analyze it legally, and put together a lawsuit as quickly as possible if there’s a legal problem. The administration has been so aggressive with its immigration policies and the scale of what they’re trying to do is getting more ambitious. It’s caused us to be more aggressive in terms of taking them to court, and then if we win that causes them to move fast to try to get rid of our victories. Everything is happening much more quickly than usual.
What got you into immigrants’ rights?
I come from a family of immigrants, including people who struggled with getting and maintaining status. I took a class with Judy Rabinovitz in law school, and she inspired me to follow this professional path.
What do you look forward to in 2020?
The possibility of a new administration to deal with and a humane, respectful system in the future. It’s refreshing to see so much public disapproval of anti-immigrant policies, and that sentiment has strengthened in the last couple of years. I hope that the sympathy and support we’ve seen for immigrant communities will continue to carry through.