New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



Yale Law Journal, Vol. 117, 2008


In the early 1960s, Brian Landsberg and his colleagues at the Department of Justice challenged the discriminatory practices of Alabama's local voting officials, who manipulated registration requirements to prevent blacks from joining the voting rolls. In Free at Last to Vote: The Alabama Origins of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Landsberg gives these lawyers their historical due. He demonstrates how the cases they brought helped shape the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though Landsberg's account ends with the dawn of the VRA, the importance of the DOJ litigators' work ultimately transcended is impact on the original statute. The history Landsberg tells underscores that when remedies migrate from litigation to legislation, they establish a framework that subsequent reformers can use to address new challenges. This Essay demonstrates this dynamic. It highlights how the DOJ lawyers provoked a paradigm shift that ultimately supported the extension of the VRA to language minorities, giving rise to the bilingual ballot. Though much separates 1960s Alabama from 1970s Texas, the time and place that produced the VRA's extensions, the two historical moments are connected by principles of great significance to contemporary conceptions of democracy. This same comparison, however, also demonstrates that remedies targeted at the problems of one group may not translate well to the context of another group. In addition to providing an opportunity for reflection on the far-reaching consequences of the DOJ litigation, then, Landsberg's work reminds us of the need to look beyond existing frameworks when addressing contemporary challenges to equality in the political process.

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