Q: What type of cases do you take on?
A: The bureau takes on cases that will provide an opportunity to have a transformative impact on an industry or a field. We think about litigation that will provide a vehicle to have a mass impact on the rights of New Yorkers. While we litigate some of our cases, we are often able to achieve resolution of our matters through settlement discussions.
The end goal in each instance is to ensure that we uproot and eliminate discriminatory conduct, institute new policies and practices, promote training and compliance and, where possible, provide restitution to impacted individuals.
Q: Much of the bureau's recent work has focused on voting rights, which seems to be one of your specialties. Does your appointment signal a desire by the attorney general to become more involved with election rights?
A: I believe that the right to vote is the bedrock of our democracy. Our nation has engaged in a decades-long struggle to extend the franchise to all citizens. However, the progress that we have achieved is fragile and the threats that remain are both real and substantial.
Indeed, this is a unique moment for those who are concerned about voting rights. All throughout the country, we have witnessed a seemingly coordinated effort to make access to the ballot box more difficult. We have seen efforts to implement mandatory photo identification requirements for voters, efforts to scale back the time for early voting and efforts to make it more difficult for ex-felons to restore their right to vote. In addition, some jurisdictions have taken aim at the Voting Rights Act seeking to strike down its protections at a time when they remain especially necessary.
The bureau has been working to promote equal access to the ballot box to ensure that all eligible voters are able to freely participate in the political process. We have engaged with Boards of Election across the state, for example, to address the language barriers that some voters face. The Voting Rights Act requires many counties across our state to provide bilingual election-related materials and bilingual assistance at the polls and compliance with the law is necessary to ensure that many non-English speakers across our state are able to effectively and meaningfully participate in the political process.
We know that persons with disabilities face real and substantial barriers when attempting to cast their votes. We also know that minority voters continue to encounter obstacles on Election Day. The bureau is deeply committed to protecting the voting rights of New Yorkers, and I am proud of the enforcement record that we are developing in this area.
Q: What sort of election rights issue arose in this year's election, both in New York and nationally?
A: Hurricane Sandy most certainly created new challenges and complexities for this year's presidential election. Many of these challenges were ones that I had encountered while working in the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina.
The Attorney General's Office launched an Election Day hotline that provided an opportunity to address complaints and resolve problems faced by voters across the state. Some of the biggest problems that we learned about came from displaced voters. Many sought to vote by affidavit ballot but many polling sites ran out of those ballots hours before the close of the election.
Q: Does Attorney General Schneiderman view the civil rights unit differently than his predecessors?
A: The attorney general knows that while we have made great progress throughout the years, the work is not yet complete. The long march toward equality and justice in our state is not yet over. In the end, I think that civil rights enforcement will be an important part of the attorney general's legacy.
Q: Last year, Schneiderman launched his "Religious Rights Initiative" to target faith-based discrimination and violations of religious rights. What has been the result of that initiative? Have you brought any lawsuits?
A: The initiative has been very well-received among a number of faith communities. We have achieved a number of important settlements including one with Milrose Consultants, an architectural firm with offices in three states; the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC), the largest municipal healthcare organization in the country; and Jacobi Medical Center, a facility within that network, to safeguard all employees' rights to religious accommodations. The settlements require the institutionalization of best practices to ensure that employees' religious accommodations requests will be handled in accordance with the law.
We know that there is more work to do on this front including addressing problems with respect to religious headwear and confronting the school bullying incidents that are directed at religious minorities. More and more faith communities are turning to our office for help on these issues and this will continue to remain a priority area of enforcement.
Q: Your office filed an amicus brief in Arizona v. United States, the dispute over Arizona's controversial immigration policies. You argued that Arizona's statute was preempted by federal law, as, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court found. Doesn't the attorney general's office usually oppose pre-emption and support the state's right to make its own laws and policies? If so, why did you oppose Arizona?
A: First, it is important to note that New York is a gateway state that is home to some of the largest populations of both documented and undocumented immigrants in the country. For this reason, it was very important for the Supreme Court to receive the views of states like ours in this critical case.
Many of the enforcement measures that we have seen that target 'removable' immigrants, such as Arizona's law, have the potential to sweep in legal immigrants and U.S. citizens who simply share the same race, ethnicity, or cultural markers as undocumented persons. We have a real interest in a state as diverse as New York in ensuring that laws and measures like these don't rear their head in our state.
The amicus brief that we submitted to the Court argues that Congress placed the federal executive branch in charge of overseeing a nationwide immigration policy with specific enforcement priorities. The brief notes that as part of that policy, the executive branch oversees state cooperative efforts to identify, apprehend and detain undocumented immigrants for purposes of removal. But the brief cautions that states may not pursue their own enforcement priorities without federal oversight.
Q: Civil rights actions have been used to advance the rights of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and gays. What's next? Where is the next frontier in civil rights law?
A: We have made significant progress in combating racial and gender discrimination and in working to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation and religion. However, we know that there is more work to do to level the playing field and ensure that everyone has equal access to opportunity.
The re-election of President Barack Obama stands and will continue to stand as a unique moment in our political history. However, there are many people who claim that we are now post-racial and believe that we have overcome problems of race. In my view, this has made the work of civil rights lawyers more challenging now than ever. We are now working to combat the real and significant discrimination problems that exist at a time when some believe that we no longer need the strong protections conferred by federal and state civil rights laws.