Prof was Homeland Security civil rights officer

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Professor Margo Schlanger recently rejoined the University of Michigan Law School faculty after two years as the presidentially appointed Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“The DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is nearly unique in government, because its chief mission is to ensure that DHS itself respects the civil rights and civil liberties of the people the Department affects,” Schlanger explains. “That’s a lot of people; DHS is the largest law enforcement agency in America – for example, it’s responsible for aviation security and border security for millions of travelers each day.”

Issues Schlanger worked on varied from detention conditions and border screening to federal information sharing and human rights. She was part of the Department leadership, giving advice about civil rights protections to the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and the heads of the DHS Components –including Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE); Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others.

“The issues are tremendously important and extraordinarily varied,” she says. “That was really fun. And I was part of the U.S. delegation to the first United States Universal Periodic Review, a human rights hearing in Geneva.”

Schlanger also ran the civil rights office at CRCL, and says she enjoyed that management aspect of the job, too. She describes her staff of 100 as “terrific” and explains that they “worked on training, civil rights investigations, community engagement, policy development, intelligence product review, and dozens of other tasks.”

Schlanger and her husband joined the U-M Law faculty in the fall of 2009. The couple met at the Department of Justice, working together on a civil rights case about a facility for people with developmental disabilities.

“We’re both civil rights lawyers, so we feel particularly lucky that we were able to come to Michigan together,” she says. “The law school had to be committed enough to us and to civil rights to hire us both...”

A history major at Yale College, Schlanger had always had an interest in law. “My father had a solo legal practice, and I had a sense of what he did,” she says. “Then when I was out of college, I started work as a fact-checker at The New Yorker, and ended up checking lots of legal stories – one about Iran-Contra, a biography of Justice Brennan, a terrific article about what happened when someone (a probate lawyer, no less) died intestate – and I really enjoyed that.”

Schlanger earned her JD in 1993 from Yale, where she served as book reviews editor of the Yale Law Journal and received the Vinson Prize for excellence in clinical casework. Very invested in anti-poverty work, she worked for five of her six semesters in Yale’s clinic, and served as a student “director” of a clinical project.

After clerking for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her first two years on the Supreme Court, Schlanger wanted to do public interest work on racial equity or poverty issues, or both.

“I hadn’t quite formulated what I was after, but I thought working for the Civil Rights Division would be a wonderful place to start – both because of the issues and because the work would be court-focused, which is something I wanted at that point in my career,” she says.

Hired for the Civil Rights Division by Assistant AG Deval Patrick, Schlanger was assigned to the Special Litigation Section, responsible for enforcing the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). She was there several months before being assigned to her first prison case, which was heading to trial in the dead of winter in Montana, and needed a couple of lawyers. Anxious for the trial experience, Schlanger asked to be put on it.

What kept her committed to prison and jail work was the crucial role of litigation and what she felt as the moral gravity. “Prisoners are far from politically powerful, obviously, which has left litigation as a more important reform driver than in most areas,” she says. “And it seems to me a crucial moral commitment for our polity that if we deprive people of the ability to care for themselves, by putting them behind bars, we must provide a humane and safe environment... there.”

For the rest of her three years at the Department of Justice Schlanger worked to remedy civil rights abuses by prison and police departments, and earned two Division Special Achievement awards in the process.

“I particularly liked thinking through remedies – working on how best to get law enforcement agencies – jails, prisons, police departments – to solve civil rights problems,” she says.

Schlanger left the DOJ in 1998 to begin teaching. In the years since, she has become even more involved in non-litigation prison reform, working as an advisor on the development of proposed national standards implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

“Prison rape is a preventable problem, and PREA is an effort to take what has been learned over the past 20 years about prevention...,” she says.

Schlanger, who was previously a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and an assistant professor at Harvard University, is enjoying the Maize and Blue. “My students are fabulous – smart, focused, interesting, and wonderful colleagues to each other.”

Schlanger has spent considerable time running the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, a website (http://clearinghouse.

net) that collects, organizes information and documents on important civil rights injunctive cases.