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Civil Rights Lawyer Takes Lead in High Stakes Voting Rights Case

Oct. 3, 2022, 8:50 AM

Deuel Ross, who will make his Supreme Court debut Tuesday in a high stakes Alabama redistricting argument, is no stranger to the case or to voting rights.

Ross has spent the last nine years working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund with a particular focus on voting rights cases in Alabama. He previously challenged the state’s absentee voting rules and voter ID law.

Ross will now defend a unanimous three-judge district court panel’s ruling that Alabama had unlawfully discriminated against Black voters when it failed to create a second “majority-Black” district in the latest round of redistricting.

“I’ve been the lead attorney on the case since the filing,” Ross said, “and been involved with the case since before we even filed it.”

Still, he’s said he has been trying to draw on the experience of others who have argued or clerked at the Supreme Court to try to understand how it differs from a typical appellate argument.

Final Arbiter

The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of federal disputes and is the only court that can change the law, Ross said. So he’s been trying to anticipate some of the larger concerns and questions that might come along with that.

In the case before the justicces, for example, a three-judge district court panel unanimously found the current state of the law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act required Alabama to draw a second majority-Black district.

When the case came to the Supreme Court last February on an emergency basis, Chief Justice John Roberts said the lower court got the law correct as “presently applied.” Roberts dissented from the emergency ruling to allow the old maps to stay in effect while the case worked its way through the Supreme Court. But he suggested the law had “engendered considerable disagreement.”

Justice Elena Kagan, also writing in dissent, was more direct. “Alabama’s challenge to the District Court’s decision cannot succeed unless this Court adopts a novel legal rule,” she said.

While aiming to anticipate any questions about changing the law, Ross noted that the justices have been adamant in recent years that if there’s an issue with a statute, that’s for Congress to address. “I’m taking them at their word with respect to that,” he said.

High Stakes

But he knows there’s a lot at stake. Alabama “is the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act and in some ways the birth place of the civil rights movement,” Ross said. “And yet, in a lot of ways it has been left behind,” in part because communities of color lack representation in the state.

“More broadly,” Ross said, “the voting rights act was meant to desegregate our electoral systems, and in a lot of ways it has been successful.” But, in “a lot of ways, there is still work to be done.”

From the start of his legal career, Ross—a 2009 University of Pennsylvania law school grad and former clerk to Judge Roger Gregory of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit—has been working on civil rights issues. That includes his time as an associate at Fried Frank, where he served as an LDF Fellow in the firm’s litigation department.

At the firm, he wrote friend-of-the-court briefs in some of the Supreme Court’s most consequential voting rights cases, including Shelby County v. Holder in which the justices struck down a major part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At LDF, Deuel has continued his work on voting rights but also represented students of color in school desegregation cases throughout the South. He also played a leading role in reaching a final settlement agreement with Connecticut this year that would expand opportunities for students from communities impacted by discrimination.

Bar Diversity

Ross will join what remains a small group of Black attorneys to have argued before the Court. The Supreme Court bar is largely white and male. And arguments are dominated by veteran attorneys who have repeatedly argued before the justices.

Last term, veterans outnumbered first timers, 80-45. Women appeared in just 24% of arguments and attorneys of color even fewer. And other measures of diversity—LGBTQ attorneys, those with disabilities, or military veterans—barely counted.

Merrill, however, has some atypical representation among the four arguing attorneys, who include three first-timers, two attorneys of color, and two women. Along with Ross, Abha Khanna, with the Elias Law Group, also will make her Supreme Court debut. So will Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour. US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar will argue in support of those challenging the current maps.

“It’s important, certainly in civil rights cases, but really in all cases, that people of color and women and other minority groups have the opportunity to represent their clients and in some ways their country in the Supreme Court,” said Ross.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com