Howard Law Professor and Clinic Win Landmark Court Case, People v. Silas

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Howard University School of Law Professor Tiffany Wright and the Civil Rights Clinic have won landmark case People v. Silas, which recognizes implicit bias in nixing a juror for supporting Black Lives Matter.

Wright drafted and filed the brief in her capacity as an Orrick attorney.  Before arguing the case, she changed her court appearance to reflect her role at Howard. Two students in the Civil Rights Clinic, Sonora Carroll and Annabelle Emuze, helped her prepare for the arguments and attended the moots.  To read more about the case, go to: https://reut.rs/3ivUynN

“With input and support from her Civil Rights Clinic students and her colleague in the clinic, Ed Williams, Professor Wright successfully argued that striking a Black prospective juror for supporting Black Lives Matter is unconstitutional racial discrimination,” said Valerie Schneider, Howard University School of Law professor of law and director of the Clinical Law Center. “Wright and her Civil Rights Clinic students exemplify the Houstonian tradition of challenging white supremacy in all aspects of American life; their work on this case has changed the conversation regarding racism in the jury-selection process and will hopefully lead to more just results.”

Wright, adjunct professor and supervising attorney of the Human and Civil Rights Clinic, spoke with Howard law about the case and her teams’ work on it. Here is what she had to say: 

HUSL: What made you decide to draft and file a brief on this case? What was your overall goal?

Wright: “I first heard of the issue—whether prosecutors’ striking of Black people for supporting Black Lives Matter—through an article by the Marshall Project detailing the story of Crishala Reed in California. I was then approached by my good friend and former Orrick colleague, Easha Anand of the MacArthur Justice Center, who wanted to submit an amicus brief on the issue in People v. Silas—the case where Ms. Reed was stricken from the jury panel after she stated that she supported Black Lives Matter. 

Along with other Orrick lawyers, we submitted a brief explaining why support for BLM is inextricably intertwined with race, making any peremptory strike on that basis a race-based strike forbidden by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” 

HUSL: What made you decide to change your court appearance to reflect your role at HUSL?

Wright: This was required by court rules. I had filed the brief as an Orrick attorney, and once I joined Howard full time in November 2020, I needed to update my appearance in the case to reflect that change, particularly after the court granted our request to present oral argument on the issue. 

Once the Court granted our motion to participate in oral argument, I had roughly 10 days to prepare. Sonora and Annabelle immediately volunteered to help. They prepared questions and attended all the moots before the actual argument. 

HUSL: Please elaborate on other examples of transformative work that you're doing in the Civil Rights Clinic.

Wright: This is our second major win. Early in 2021, I argued a case in the Second Circuit—Uniformed Fire Officers’ Association v. DeBlasio—where we defeated police unions’ efforts to prevent public disclosure of law enforcement misconduct records. Two Clinic students—Kufere Laing and Darryl Williams helped prepare me for that argument. Within the past 12 months, we have filed four briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court, including a brief in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where the Court is considering whether to overrule Roe v. Wade. Our other Supreme Court briefs have involved criminal sentencing statutesemployment discrimination (our brief was covered by Reuters), and unjust crack cocaine sentencing. We have also filed briefs in state supreme courts and the federal courts of appeals on critical civil rights issues. Finally, we are representing the family of a man killed by police in Greenville, Mississippi in 2017. That case is currently scheduled for trial in federal court in June 2022. 

HUSL: What is your overall goal with any of the work you do with the Civil Rights Clinic?

Wright: Our Clinic focuses almost entirely on appellate litigation. It is our mission to increase the number of Black appellate lawyers, as this is one of the least diverse segments of the legal profession. This is particularly sad given that the use of appellate courts to achieve social justice was pioneered by Black people right here at Howard, including Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston. Yet today, there are very few Black women and men who have argued or regularly practice before the Supreme Court. Our goal is start changing that.