Houston and New York, March 12, 2004 – Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, one of the world’s leading law firms, represented the Prairie View, Texas, Chapter of the NAACP and students from Prairie View A&M University in two civil rights law suits impacting the voting rights of the university students. As a result, Prairie View A&M University students, 90 percent of whom are African-American, are able to vote without threat of prosecution and have the opportunity to participate in early voting. Weil Gotshal represented the client pro bono and was joined by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as co-counsel. (Prairie View Chapter of the NAACP, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Oliver S. Kitzman, Waller County Criminal District Attorney, Defendant)
“Weil Gotshal places great emphasis on pro bono work,” said John B. Strasburger, a partner in Weil Gotshal’s Houston office. “When we heard about the students in our state whose civil rights were being violated, we devoted the time, resources and expertise that all of our clients receive to see that justice was served.”
Attorneys Gregg J. Costa and Christopher M. Lopez also assisted in the cases.
Both cases were investigated, filed, and settled successfully within six weeks. In the first case, Weil Gotshal and co-counsel negotiated a settlement after filing a suit in federal court against the district attorney for Waller County (about 45 miles northwest of Houston), who had argued that dorm rooms are not considered legal residences. Accused of having racial and political motives, the district attorney had threatened to prosecute students if they registered and voted in Waller, the county in which the university is located. The settlement included a consent decree signed in federal court reaffirming the right of Prairie View A&M University students’ qualification to vote, as well as an apology statement encouraging the students to vote.
Weil Gotshal fashioned two additional elements into the settlement in order to help improve race relations: an internship for a Prairie View student each semester in the district attorney’s office and a liaison to facilitate communications between the university and district attorney’s office.
The second case was filed to enjoin the reduction of early voting in Prairie View from 17 hours to 6 hours for the primary election prior to receiving pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice as demonstrating that the voting change does not worsen the position of minority voters (as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act). Early voting was particularly important because the students were to be on spring break during the March 9 primary election. The filing of the suit caused Waller County officials to reverse their vote and restore the voting privileges they had taken away. Joining Weil Gotshal and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in this lawsuit were the NAACP, the ACLU and People For the American Way Foundation.
Partners and associates are encouraged to contribute a minimum of 50 hours of pro bono work each year. The firm’s award-winning work in this area has been extremely varied, encompassing such important issues as housing discrimination, political asylum, the rights of the disabled, indigent criminal appeals, AIDS, battered women, educational standards and child welfare. The unique Weil Gotshal Pro Bono Externship Program allows associates at the firm to work full-time for four months inside underserved communities.