Joaquin Avila to lead National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at law school

One of the country's foremost authorities on voting rights issues will lead a major national initiative at Seattle University School of Law to address issues of minority vote dilution. The School of Law is poised to become the national leader in combating electoral discrimination with the founding of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative.

Distinguished Practitioner in Residence Joaquin Avila will direct the groundbreaking project, which will serve as a national resource center for voting rights practitioners and advocates who are involved in litigation, legislative and advocacy efforts to eliminate methods of election that have a discriminatory effect on minority voting strength.

The new initiative will be housed within the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality.

"This undertaking by Seattle University School of Law is unique," said Professor Bob Chang, director of the Korematsu Center. "Seattle University School of Law is the only law school in the country that has established this innovative project in anticipation of the upcoming 2011 redistricting of election districts for members of Congress, city councils, school boards and the governing boards of other political entities."

The project will provide an opportunity for law students to work with people in the field on a variety of projects and tasks. In addition, a website will provide access to administrative determinations by the United States Attorney General pursuant to Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, to legislative hearings surrounding the passage, amendments and reauthorization of the federal Voting Rights Act, to litigation manuals and pleadings focusing on legal challenges to redistricting plans and at-large methods of election, and to selected analysis of both federal and state voting rights cases. Law students will work on proposed legislation affecting the right to vote at the federal and state levels. The law school also will initiate a process for the documentation of voting rights abuses and problems that can be utilized in congressional oversight hearings.

Avila will work with minority bar associations, national civil rights organizations and voting rights attorneys throughout the country. The data, expert reports and legal memoranda that will be generated and collected will provide scholars with research that will be useful in preparing articles and filing cases. He will continue to teach a voting rights course for the law school.

He is excited to take on this new role and further his work to ensure that everyone has equal representation in elections. Avila developed his passion for ensuring equal representation for minorities while working for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the 1970s in rural Texas.

"Mexican Americans weren't receiving any kind of assistance, and you could see stark differences between the Mexican American and the non-Mexican American communities," he said.

His early work with MALDEF defined his career. Avila is a nationally recognized expert on Latina/o voting rights. He spent many years filing actions challenging discriminatory at-large methods of elections, gerrymandered election districts, violations of the one-person one-vote principle and non-compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. From 1981 to 1982, he testified before various legislative committees and was involved in the efforts to both amend and reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 1982.

In 1985, Professor Avila established a private practice, focusing exclusively on protecting minority voting rights. He was instrumental in the dismantling of many discriminatory methods of election throughout California and parts of the Southwest. During this time period he also successfully argued two appeals in the United States Supreme Court involving enforcement of the special provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 - one decision was unanimous and the other was 8-1.

He also spearheaded various legislative efforts in California to make the electoral process more accessible to Latinas/os. His most significant accomplishment in the legislative arena was the passage of the 2001 California State Voting Rights Act. This Act permits challenges to discriminatory at-large methods of elections in state courts without having to prove a host of evidentiary factors as required under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is the only state voting rights act in the nation.

Professor Avila has taught courses at the University of California/Berkeley, University of Texas, and UCLA schools of law. Professor Avila has received numerous awards in recognition of his work in the voting rights area. He received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1996 for his voting rights work. In the same year, he received the Vanguard Public Foundation's Social Justice Sabbatical for his work in providing political access to minority communities. In 2001 he received the State Bar of California's Loren Miller Legal Services Award for providing outstanding legal services to disadvantaged and underserved communities. In 1986, he received the Hispanic National Bar Association's Benito Juarez/Abraham Lincoln Award for outstanding achievement and dedication to the Latino community.

Professor Avila is a member of the Bars for the State of California and the State of Texas (inactive) and is a member of the Bars for the United States Supreme Court, the federal Court of Appeals for the 5th, 9th, and 10th Circuits, and various federal district courts in Texas and California.

Students studying in front of Sullivan Hall