Sherrilyn Ifill Is Living the Dream — and Fighting for It

Legal eagle: Ifill is a veteran of civil-rights litigation.
National Journal
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.

MOST READ
What We're Following See More »
“CLINTON MUST BECOME THE NEXT PRESIDENT”
Bernie Sanders Seeks to Unite the Party
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Instead of his usual stump speech, Bernie Sanders tonight threw his support behind Hillary Clinton, providing a clear contrast between Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump on the many issues he used to discuss in his campaign stump speeches. Sanders spoke glowingly about the presumptive Democratic nominee, lauding her work as first lady and as a strong advocate for women and the poor. “We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor,” he said. “Hillary Clinton will make a great president, and I am proud to stand with her tonight."

“MUST NEVER BE PRESIDENT”
Elizabeth Warren Goes After Donald Trump
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a stark contrast from Michelle Obama's uplifting speech, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about the rigged system plaguing Americans before launching into a full-throated rebuke of GOP nominee Donald Trump. Trump is "a man who has never sacrificed anything for anyone," she claimed, before saying he "must never be president of the United States." She called him divisive and selfish, and said the American people won't accept his "hate-filled America." In addition to Trump, Warren went after the Republican Party as a whole. "To Republicans in Congress who said no, this November the American people are coming for you," she said.

FLOTUS OFFERS STRONG ENDORSEMENT OF CLINTON
Michelle Obama: “I Trust” Hillary Clinton
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"In this election, and every election, it's about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives," Michelle Obama said. "There is only one person who I trust with that responsibility … and that is our friend Hillary Clinton." In a personal and emotional speech, Michelle Obama spoke about the effect that angry oppositional rhetoric had on her children and how she chose to raise them. "When they go low, we go high," Obama said she told her children about dealing with bullies. Obama stayed mostly positive, but still offered a firm rebuke of Donald Trump, despite never once uttering his name. "The issues a president faces cannot be boiled down to 140 characters," she said.

SANDERS BACKER CONFRONTS STUBBORN SANDERS SUPPORTERS
Sarah Silverman to Bernie or Bust: “You’re Being Ridiculous”
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Many Bernie Sanders delegates have spent much of the first day of the Democratic National Convention resisting unity, booing at mentions of Hillary Clinton and often chanting "Bernie! Bernie!" Well, one of the most outspoken Bernie Sanders supporters just told them to take a seat. "To the Bernie-or-bust people: You're being ridiculous," said comedian Sarah Silverman in a brief appearance at the Convention, minutes after saying that she would proudly support Hillary Clinton for president.

‘INEXCUSABLE REMARKS’
DNC Formally Apologizes to Bernie Sanders
13 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Democratic National Committee issued a formal apology to Bernie Sanders today, after leaked emails showed staffers trying to sabotage his presidential bid. "On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email," DNC officials said in the statement. "These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not—and will not—tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates."

Source:
×