On January 19, U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance will retire as the top federal law enforcement officer in north Alabama. Her departure from the position takes place one day before Donald Trump becomes America’s next president; Trump would have had the option either to ask Vance to stay on as U.S. Attorney or to appoint a replacement.
In her 25 years as a federal prosecutor, Vance has been involved in milestone cases both before and since becoming President Barack Obama’s appointee to head the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Birmingham, as noted in remarks made by her boss, the outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“Since the first year of the Obama Administration, U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance has served the people of the Northern District of Alabama — and all of the American people — with compassion and integrity,” Lynch said in comments issued days before she made her own last official speech in Birmingham. “During her tenure, she oversaw the development of a comprehensive initiative to tackle opioid and heroin addiction. She helped lead an ongoing investigation into abuse in Alabama prisons. She fought corruption and brought actions to protect the rights of immigrants.
“And she has been a valuable partner in the department’s efforts to improve relationships between police officers and the people they serve, including by welcoming me to Birmingham in 2015 during my Community Policing Tour. In these and in so many other ways, Joyce has been a dedicated servant of the law and a tireless champion of justice,” Lynch said.
Vance’s accolades have come from outside the Department of Justice as well. For example, just before Vance announced she was stepping down, the UAB School of Public Health named her the winner of the 2017 Lou Wooster Public Health Hero Award for her efforts in responding to the heroin and opioid epidemic in north Alabama.
In announcing her retirement, Vance said she had been honored to serve, and highlighted the “tireless dedication” as well as the “competence, integrity and… commitment to public service” of the men and women she worked with on the federal, state and local levels. “Together, we’ve taken on a full spectrum of challenges and have left our communities safer while protecting the civil rights of all who live here,” she said.
Defending civil rights, in line with the Obama administration’s view that all groups, whether defined by religion, sexual orientation, or other status, deserve protection by the federal government, was the part of her legacy Vance most wanted to discuss in an interview in December. In the first two parts of her conversation with Weld, the focus was on color of law cases, building relationships between disparate parts of the community, and securing the rights of prisoners and ex-offenders. In the last part of the series, the conversation turns to Vance’s USAO and its civil rights work relating to voting rights and disabilities.
Polls and universities
In one such case in Jefferson County, the issues involved the rights of those with disabilities to have equal access to places to vote.
“The Jefferson County case is actually an Americans with Disabilities Act case, where we have reports that some polling places were not wheelchair accessible [or] accessible to voters with vision impairment,” Vance said. Authorities surveyed random polling places throughout the county and “found out that in fact there were a wide range of problems. And the county attorney’s office has worked with us to implement the terms of an agreement that called for them to fix that. I suspect that Jefferson County is not unique in that and we have more work to do. But it was a great start.”
Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by a state or local government in any program or service, including its voting program. Jefferson County and other public entities have to use polling places which are accessible to all voters, regardless of disability. Under terms set out in a settlement agreement, Jefferson County is expected to use an evaluation form for each current and prospective polling place based on ADA architectural standards, according to the USAO. In an October press release about the case, Vance’s office explained that “the settlement requires the county to either relocate inaccessible polling places to new, accessible facilities, or to use temporary measures such as portable ramps, signs, traffic cones and doorbells, where appropriate, to ensure accessibility on Election Day.”
Also under the terms of the agreement, the USAO will monitor Jefferson County’s compliance until 2021 to ensure the polling places are fully accessible in accordance with the ADA.
In a similar vein, Vance’s office has been working with the largest employer in the state, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, to ensure ADA compliance. A UAB student had filed a complaint “alleging that various buildings and parking lots on campus were inaccessible to individuals with mobility impairments, in violation of the ADA,” Vance’s office noted at the time of the 2016 settlement agreement.
That agreement “ensures equal access for individuals with disabilities to the university’s academic and general facilities,” according to Vance’s office. “UAB collaborated with [the Department of Justice] to develop a pilot program designed to address alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act at institutions of higher learning. As part of the pilot, UAB agreed to conduct architectural reviews of 39 academic and general facilities. D.O.J. provided support and trained UAB personnel to properly survey the university’s property for Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. Once UAB completes its architectural surveys, it will submit reports to D.O.J. for review.”
In another civil rights case pertaining to elections, the U.S. Attorney’s Office looked into the state of Alabama’s compliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the Motor Voter Act, a federal law signed into being by then-President Bill Clinton. As noted in the Wikipedia article about the Motor Voter Act, “The law advances voting rights in the United States by requiring state governments to offer voter registration opportunities to any eligible person who applies for or renews a driver’s license or applies for public assistance, requiring states to register applicants that use a federal voter registration form to apply, and prohibiting states from removing registered voters from the voter rolls unless certain criteria are met.”
The Department of Justice and the three USAOs in Alabama worked on the case, in which the state agreed to come into compliance — without being sued.
“Oftentimes voting is so fraught, Vance said. “People think it’s meant to benefit one political party. All this does is it makes it possible for people to register, consistent with the requirements of federal law … It’s been around forever, and Alabama was not in compliance. And what that law says is when you go into the DMV to get a driver’s license, or when you renew your license, or when you change your address, you should be able, on that same piece of paper, if you are qualified, to register to vote. So Alabama was not in compliance with that.
“Not only was the process not in place, there was no — as there should be — signage telling people that they had that right. We worked with the [Justice Department’s] Civil Rights Division, the other two U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Alabama and negotiated a settlement of that case. There was no lawsuit filed.”
That there was no lawsuit filed is significant; the Justice Department did file suit against a number of states over noncompliance with the Motor Voter Act after it went into effect in 1995. In Alabama, representatives of the D.O.J. were able to negotiate compliance without lengthy expensive court proceedings. That’s an approach Vance said she favors.
“I’m a huge fan of people sitting down around a table and resolving an issue so that everybody wins, rather than going to court and having a long, protracted process, which is what we do only when we can’t resolve things,” she said. “In this case, the state of Alabama has undertaken to fix the problem. Now, when you go into the DMV, you’re given that option of registering to vote; you can change your address for your DMV forms, [and] change your voter registration address.”
According to the USAO, Alabama’s settlement “will also ensure that change of address information submitted for driver’s license purposes will be used to update voter’s address information unless the voter declines to update her voter registration. In order to provide a voter registration opportunity for Alabama residents who did not receive the opportunity to register when last applying for or renewing a driver’s license or other identification document, Alabama will contact all eligible voters who are not currently registered to vote at the address associated with a driver’s license or other identification document.”
Matters of belief
In an era where belonging to a minority religion — particularly one whose practitioners wear clothing dictated by their faith — can lead to harassment, vandalism, and other forms of persecution (the Justice Department has investigated more than 1,000 such cases since 9/11), Vance’s office took the side of the victim more than once.
For example, in August 2012, a white supremacist gunman, Wade Michael Page, murdered six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. After shooting a responding police officer 15 times and being wounded by return fire from police, Page shot himself in the head.
That case had reverberations around the world. Obama called for the flags at federal buildings to be flown at half-staff, then Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the killings as “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime.” There were vigils and protests in India and a call by the highest-ranking priest in the Sikh faith for all U.S. Sikhs to increase security at their temples. Such concerns also reached the Birmingham area.
That incident prompted Vance’s office to make a connection with a local Sikh temple, located in Bessemer, which had also been the target of vandalism, she said. “They didn’t know the chief in their police jurisdiction,” Vance said. “So I called [Bessemer Police Chief Nate Rutledge] up, and we met out there one Sunday morning for their service, participated in their service, stayed afterwards and ate with them, talked with them.
“The chief was so happy to get to meet them. He just hadn’t had the occasion to get to know them. They were incredibly happy to get to know him, and that relationship has continued. They know who to call. They feel protected. He looks out for them. That, I think, is when we’re working best to protect people’s civil rights — before you have an incident.”
The climate of rising religious intolerance across the country led to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division holding six religious roundtable discussions in various communities, with the participation of several federal agencies and with the idea of expanding community support for upholding the rights of religious minorities. Vance’s office participated along with the D.O.J.’s Community Relations Service in a local roundtable held at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2016, which focused particularly on religiously motivated discrimination in hiring and in the workplace.
At the time, Vance noted that “the civil rights movement in Birmingham began, in large part, in our religious community. The religious community in Birmingham, as across the nation, is now more diverse. Today’s opportunity to listen to the concerns and issues [that] people of varied faiths encounter at the intersection of the exercise of their religion and their employment will help us all to better understand and respect the wide range of worship and belief that coexist in our great democracy.”
Looking back on the roundtable, Vance said its success derived from how people in various faith groups reached common ground.
“We didn’t talk about Jewish religious rights or Muslim religious rights. We talked about everybody’s rights, including, interestingly enough, some folks who participated from agnostic and atheist traditions who talked about how they were impacted by religious traditions in the workplace,” Vance said.
“These conversations, when we do them right, let us be deliberate and thoughtful about living up to American constitutional values that we all hold dear.”
Continuing the commitment
Broadening the scope of civil rights protections is an extension of the main purpose of federal law enforcement — to seek justice, Vance said. For that reason, she expects that the D.O.J. will continue to pursue such work, whether Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions becomes head of the department — which appears likely — or not.
“I sometimes worry that the community doesn’t always understand that we take very seriously our obligation to protect civil rights,” Vance said, “and not just the civil rights of people who know law enforcement, who can call law enforcement. We take our commitment to protect people whether they are folks who are in prison, whether they’re Muslims, immigrants, Christians, [or] people in the LGBTQ community.
“Our job is to protect people, and that’s why I think that the Civil Rights Division that we’ve established in our office is so incredibly important. It is a physical marker with a commitment of resources that says that here in Birmingham, the cradle in so many ways of the civil rights movement, our commitment to civil rights is ongoing. The Justice Department’s commitment to civil rights is ongoing.”
Even as she leaves the USAO for the Northern District of Alabama, Vance said that upholding civil rights, particularly in this community, is an essential function of the office. “This work is the core. It’s the heart of who we are in Birmingham,” she said. “Our hope, though, is the work that we do inspires people to do this work on their own, whether it’s in the community; whether it’s businesses who say, ‘We want really want to rethink our approach to hiring formerly incarcerated [people]’; [or] whether it’s employers who say, ‘We need to accommodate Muslim prayer in our workplace.’ We need to all be proactive about protecting the rights of everyone in our community.”
In her nearly eight years as U.S. attorney, Vance’s office investigated and prosecuted hundreds of cases and collected criminal and civil penalties in the millions — more than $5 million in the fiscal year ending in 2016 alone — but it was never about the numbers, she said.
“My metric has never been, ‘How many cases did we indict this month?’ My metric is, ‘Are we making the community safer?’ And that is a tough metric to evaluate,” Vance said. “But in the words of one of my favorite law enforcement colleagues, we sometimes use statistics the way a drunk uses a lamppost — more for support than for illumination. So if you evaluate our office based on the number of cases — ’Did you indict more cases this year than last year?’ — well, that’s a metric, but who cares? If you’re making the community safer in a meaningful way, that’s law enforcement’s mission.”
You can find the first two parts of U.S. Attorney Vance’s conversation with Weld here and