YLS Professor Vicki Schultz to launch project on the history of civil rights law
Vicki Schultz, Ford Foundation professor of law and social science at Yale Law School, is launching a new project to chronicle the work of early lawyers in the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
Madelyn Kumar, Contributing Photographer
Law professor Vicki Schultz is launching a new project that will document the early work done by lawyers in the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Employment and Litigation Section, commonly referred to as the ELS.
For the first time, during the spring 2022 semester, Schultz will teach a seminar at the Law School titled “Living Civil Rights Law.” Schultz will work with her students in the seminar to interview various living alums of the section, which is credited with the development of some of the most expansive concepts in civil rights law, such as disparate impact and affirmative action.
“These people accomplished incredible things,” Schultz said. “Yet, it’s important to note that there’s been very little literature on the work of these really hard-working lawyers at the Civil Rights Division in the Employment Section or almost any other section, and I think it’s time to do something about that.”
Schultz is an alum of the Civil Rights Division ELS herself. Before entering academia, she worked as a trial lawyer in the Civil Rights Division under the Reagan Administration from 1983 to 1986. She said that these years were enough to “really change” her life and make her understand that she was “part of something greater than [herself].”
The work of chronicling the section’s early history will start with interviews with various lawyers who worked at the DOJ between 1968 and 1974. These interviews will be conducted by the students in Schultz’s seminar, who will each focus on one or two cases their assigned lawyers worked on and then present their findings to the seminar.
“My sense is that younger people, like people in every generation, are always hungry for inspiration, hope, change and intergenerational connections that will nourish them and help them find their own path towards change,” Schultz said. “I am hopeful not simply that the students will learn from the lawyers, but that the lawyers will inspire the students to live their own dreams for change the way they were able to do.”
Alex Fay LAW ’22, who is assisting Schultz in the development of the Spring course, explained that Schultz intends to make the seminar “democratic and largely student-directed.”
Isaiah Ogren LAW ’24 told the News he plans to take the seminar and expressed excitement for the course’s content.
“I look forward to learning from Professor Schultz about the current state of civil rights law, as well as hearing from the extraordinary women and men of the civil rights division about how they transformed federal law in the 1960s and 70s to move us towards a world free from discrimination,” Ogren wrote in an email to the News.
Schultz expects that these interviews will be “long and unwieldy” at first, but hopes to contract a professional editor to eventually compress the interviews into 45 to 60-minute segments available for public dissemination.
She added that, despite the time required to complete the project, she is dedicated to preserving the “memories of people.”
Former Deputy Chief of the ELS Richard Ugelow, who worked at the DOJ from 1973 to 2003 alongside many of the lawyers Schultz intends to interview, said that the effort the ELS lawyers put in has never fully been explored.
“The story of how they did the work has absolutely not been researched or discussed,” Ugelow said. “So Professor Schultz’s work will hopefully create a record of and give credence to the work of these wonderful people and attorneys.”
Within the field of discrimination and civil rights law, Schultz believes the body of law and legal concepts developed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — the title enforced by the ELS — is some of most “transformative and capacious of their time.” This conviction inspired Schultz’ endeavor to preserve the legacy of the section’s early lawyers, who can largely be credited with the development of that body of law.
However, Schultz’ intention is not simply to laud the important work that came out of the ELS in its early years. In fact, she anticipates some students will be interested in investigating the shortcomings of relying on the existing law.
“I really think we need a whole new civil rights law paradigm for the 21st century,” Schultz said. “But until we can build and create the political will for a new paradigm, we have to use what we have as creatively as we can.”
Though this project is first and foremost a collected history, Schultz also hopes to make relevant contemporary connections in her seminar. She explained that 2020 was a historic turning point for Title VII Law, with the Bostock v. Clayton County Supreme Court Case officially granting LGBTQ individuals protection against workplace discrimination.
Title VII grants the Attorney General authority to prosecute employers demonstrating a “pattern or practice of discrimination.” According to Schultz, the vagueness of this mandate meant early ELS lawyers had to integrate themselves into harmed communities, understanding the realities of the people through thorough fact-investigation, in order to obtain court victories.
“So I think the best thing that can be said is that the law developed organically out of the facts and the needs of the people,” Schultz said. “And if we want to understand what our law should be doing today, we have to take the same kind of approach.”
For Schultz, this work is meaningful both in preserving the historic work of the ELS and in its capacity to connect her students to an older generation of boundary-breaking lawyers.
Schultz has been a professor at the Law School since 1993.