Sherrilyn Ifill Is Living the Dream — and Fighting for It

Legal eagle: Ifill is a veteran of civil-rights litigation.
National Journal
Courtney Mcbride
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Courtney McBride
Sept. 17, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

Sher­rilyn Ifill has served as pres­id­ent and dir­ect­or-coun­sel of the NAACP Leg­al De­fense and Edu­ca­tion­al Fund since Janu­ary, and she says that while “the signs are all around me that I’m new” — in­clud­ing bare walls in her of­fices in New York and Wash­ing­ton — she feels “quite settled in.” This may be partly due to her fa­mili­ar­ity with the or­gan­iz­a­tion: Ifill worked as an as­sist­ant coun­sel at LDF early in her ca­reer. Now a vet­er­an of civil-rights lit­ig­a­tion, she has taught since 1993 at the Uni­versity of Mary­land Fran­cis King Carey School of Law, from which she is cur­rently on leave. Cit­ing the im­port­ance of fully com­mit­ting to her post and “giv­ing the or­gan­iz­a­tion what it needs,” Ifill plans to ab­stain from lit­ig­a­tion for two years. She then hopes to re­turn to the courts.

Dur­ing her first stint at LDF, Ifill was in­volved in the case of Hou­s­ton Law­yers As­so­ci­ation v. At­tor­ney Gen­er­al of Texas, in which the Su­preme Court held that Sec­tion 2 of the Vot­ing Rights Act ap­plies to ju­di­cial elec­tions. At the Uni­versity of Mary­land, she es­tab­lished a clin­ic­al prac­tice with her stu­dents, rep­res­ent­ing low-in­come and minor­ity cli­ents in the Bal­timore area. Ifill says the ex­per­i­ence “really opened me up to a kind of full-ser­vice civil-rights prac­tice.” While the cases rarely brought her to fed­er­al court, she says the work was in­struct­ive and re­ward­ing.

LDF is in­volved in a num­ber of high-pro­file leg­al battles, in­clud­ing Shelby County v. Hold­er, in which the Su­preme Court in­val­id­ated Sec­tion 4 of the Vot­ing Rights Act. Ifill main­tains that “the re­cord was about as sol­id as it could be” with re­spect to the stand­ard for pre­clear­ance of loc­al elec­tion laws, but she says, “for people who were at the or­al ar­gu­ments, the writ­ing on the wall was clear.” The fal­lout from the rul­ing has been swift. Texas re­in­stated a voter-iden­ti­fic­a­tion law that LDF had suc­ceed­ing in block­ing through lit­ig­a­tion in North­w­est Aus­tin Mu­ni­cip­al Util­ity Dis­trict Num­ber One v. Hold­er. “Part of our job,” Ifill ex­plains, “is to ask or com­pel gov­ern­ments — state or fed­er­al — to pro­tect the civil rights of their res­id­ents.”

In ad­di­tion to vot­ing rights, Ifill says, “there’s an ar­ray of eco­nom­ic is­sues that are cry­ing out for a civil-rights frame. They’re really is­sues around prac­tices that dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect minor­it­ies.” She ticks off a list of what she terms “prac­tices that are block­ing people from be­ing able to move in­to the middle class.” These in­clude stu­dent-loan debt, debt col­lec­tion, fore­clos­ures, and ret­ro­act­ive crim­in­al-back­ground checks. Even as she leads an or­gan­iz­a­tion his­tor­ic­ally as­so­ci­ated with Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, Ifill em­phas­izes the im­port­ance of broad­en­ing pub­lic in­terest in ques­tions of civil rights. “We’re really in a crit­ic­al mo­ment in this coun­try,” she says, and “we are poised to un­der­stand the con­nec­tion between civil rights and demo­cracy. Civil rights is really a demo­cracy move­ment.” Dur­ing her re­search for a book on the last re­cor­ded lynch­ings in Mary­land, she says she dis­covered, “There is a real hun­ger for, but a real fear of, con­ver­sa­tions about race.”

Ifill, 50, was raised in New York City, the young­est of 10 chil­dren. She cred­its her fath­er, an elec­tri­cian who later be­came a so­cial work­er, with ex­pos­ing her and her sib­lings to is­sues of so­cial justice. She re­calls watch­ing journ­al­ist Gil Noble’s Like It Is pro­gram, and tun­ing in to both parties’ na­tion­al con­ven­tions be­gin­ning in 1972. Then-Rep. Bar­bara Jordan, D-Texas, was “a huge in­spir­a­tion” dur­ing the Wa­ter­gate pro­ceed­ings, Ifill says. She counts her­self for­tu­nate to hold a po­s­i­tion that is con­sist­ent with her “lifelong dream.”

Ifill splits her time between New York and Bal­timore. She is mar­ried with three chil­dren. She earned a bach­el­or’s de­gree from Vas­sar Col­lege in 1984 and a law de­gree from New York Uni­versity in 1987. A lov­er of art and theat­er — “things that feed the spir­it” — she says she is hap­pi­est when read­ing and writ­ing. Ifill is cur­rently at work on a book on Su­preme Court con­firm­a­tion hear­ings since Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion.

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