Steven Wright, a defense attorney in Madison, Wisconsin, served in the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice for five years.


Baltimore: What Hasn’t Changed

Police officers watching pedestrians in Baltimore, Maryland, following the death of Freddie Gray, May 2, 2015

The arrest of the six Baltimore officers might have provided an opportunity for the kinds of reform that would prevent the abuse or death of future Freddie Grays. But by failing to match prosecution with LEOBR reform, the officer’s indictment and possible conviction is likely to be little more than a symbolic act of accountability to calm fed-up African-Americans.

The Voter ID Mess

Checking a voter's photo ID at an early polling site, Austin, Texas, February 14, 2014

One could be forgiven for being confused about where things stand with voter ID laws in this fall’s midterm election. Federal-court orders have altered voting rules in a number of states, just weeks before voters go to the polls. A larger concern is whether states can prevent confusion among poll workers themselves—the people who have the de-facto last word in determining whether you are eligible to vote.

Voter Discrimination Just Got Easier

Voters cast their ballots in Bakersfield, California, November 6, 2012

For almost fifty years, the US government has had an especially effective tool for preventing voter discrimination: sending federal observers to polling stations across the country. As recently as the 2012 presidential election, the Justice Department dispatched more than 780 federal employees to 51 jurisdictions across 23 states. Now, that program has largely been suspended.

Trayvon Martin: What the Law Can’t Do

 Attorney General Eric Holder speaking to the NAACP, Orlando, Florida, July 16, 2013

On the evening of July 13, the day a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, my mother phoned me, distraught. She, like many mothers of black sons, couldn’t understand how state prosecutors had failed to secure a conviction for the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. She’d heard that the NAACP and other civil-rights groups were pleading for the United States Department of Justice to charge Zimmerman with a federal hate crime; she’d also heard that the family could pursue a wrongful death suit. Then she asked me, based upon my experience as a former Justice Department civil-rights attorney, whether I thought either would stand a chance of holding Zimmerman accountable for Martin’s death. My answer didn’t give her much comfort.