Civil Rights & Transparency Clinic

The Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic is a litigation clinic focused on civil rights and civil liberties, spanning constitutional liberties like free speech, privacy, due process, and statutory civil rights against discrimination.

Contact Us

Clinic Questions? Contact Michael Higgins mh93@buffalo.edu.

Application Questions? Email law-clinic@buffalo.edu.

We have a dual mission:

  • Civil Rights & Liberties:  Advance justice by litigating to protecting individual civil rights and civil liberties
  • Transparency: Press for more transparency in government, which is essential to meaningful public accountability and democratic oversight

Our Cases: These cases are representative of the clinic’s current and future docket:

  • Federal Section 1983 action to enforce the civil rights of a female employee who was paid an unequal wage in violation of the Equal Pay Act and equal protection
  • Litigation to enforce freedom of information requests, such as requests for the government to release accurate statistics on suicides in local jails
  • Disparate impact lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act against landlords who refuse to accept vouchers in a manner that disproportionately impacts protected groups

Our Clients:  We represent a range of clients that include individual victims of civil rights violations; investigative journalists and news organizations; and grassroots, regional and national advocacy organizations. Past clients include the New York Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, and Amnesty International USA.

Student Engagement: This clinic is designed for you to grow into the attorney you want to be. Our clinic gives you invaluable hands-on experience practicing law, under the supportive supervision of clinical professors. You can expect to learn critical lawyering skills to become practice ready (which are increasingly on the bar exam). You will work on cutting-edge legal issues and make a positive difference. Ultimately, you will walk away with more confidence, a sense of your lawyering identity, and practical skills that an employer will value. Our student attorneys lead on all aspects of our client representations. They litigate in federal court and before agencies. An effective lawyer has a toolbox that includes more than litigation. They also engage in non-litigation advocacy like drafting white papers and policy proposals, presenting them to key decisionmakers.

Projects

On this page:

Litigating for Open and Accountable Government

Citizens have a right to know that their elected officials are free from financial conflicts. In New York State elected officials are required to disclose financial interests annually. In all but one county in New York State those disclosures are open to public inspection.

In February 2020, the clinic filed suit on behalf of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government against Niagara County. The suit sought access to sealed records and to overturn the local law that hides these financial disclosures from public view.

News:

  • Feb. 18, 2020 – Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government files lawsuit against Niagara County, WGRZ-News

Training Grassroots Organizations to Use Open Government Laws

The clinic works to support the investigative work and policy advocacy of local non-profits and grassroots organizations. To this end, the clinic has hosted community-based trainings for professional journalists focused on New York’s open government laws, including the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law.

In January 2019, the clinic conducted an open government workshop for the Partnership for Public Good and Open Buffalo Democracy Fellows.

In April 2019, clinic students conducted a workshop and training for a variety of local organizations and community activists as part of the Buffalo Commons.

During these workshops, the clinic provided attendees with materials and practical resources to enable organizations to use the open government laws. Clinic students provided brief advice on particular FOIL issues.

Reforming Court Secrecy Practices

Everyone has the right to see how justice is being carried out in our courtrooms. Both the First Amendment and the common law protect every person’s right to attend court and to read documents filed in cases. Sometimes, however, courts improperly seal documents – or even entire cases – without properly considering the public’s right of access. As a result, important controversies and decisions may be shielded from public scrutiny.

The clinic is working with partner organizations to improve court secrecy practices by entrenching transparency protections in the rules of procedure that govern court proceedings on the ground.

The clinic submitted a successful proposal to the federal District Court for the Northern District of New York. As a result, that court overhauled its rules governing sealing in civil cases, effective January 1, 2018. That project was done in partnership the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

The clinic is expand on that success, working with the Knight First Amendment Institute to seek an amendment to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in order to entrench and harmonize the procedures that litigants and judges must follow before deciding whether to issue secrecy orders and exclude the public.

Student Voices

  • July 6, 2017 – Laura Gardiner ’18, Andy Plewinski ’18, Amanda S. Wadsworth ’18, “Sealed cases, sealed documents, sealed opinions,” Washington Post

Resources

Suing for Transparency at the Erie County Jails

National Lawyers Guild Buffalo Chapter v. Erie County Sheriff’s Office (Sup. Ct. Erie County)

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly concealed suicide attempts by prisoners in its custody, mislabeling such incidents as mere “inmate disturbances” or “manipulative gestures,” thereby avoiding its legal obligation to report to the New York State Commission of Correction. More than two dozen inmates have died in the Sheriff’s custody since 2006, many by their own hand.

The clinic represents the National Lawyers Guild Buffalo Chapter in a Freedom of Information lawsuit to force the Sheriff to produce incident reports that could reveal additional instances of concealed suicide attempts, as well as policies, internal emails, and other documents that shed light on how the Sheriff’s Office treats suicide attempts and whether it has evaded mandatory oversight.

Following more than a year of litigation, the trial judge has issued a ruling ordering disclosure of the vast majority of the requested information. The Sheriff’s Office has complied with portions of the order and is pursuing an appeal.

News:

  • Mar. 24, 2020 - Buffalo transparency clinic wins access to local jails’ records on suicide attempts, Free Expression Legal Network
  • Feb. 20, 2018 – “Erie County Sheriff’s Office accused of trying to hide prisoners’ suicide attempts,” Spectrum News Buffalo
  • Feb. 20, 2018 – “Erie County Sheriff’s Office faces suit over request for jail records,” The Buffalo News

Resources:

Suing for the Rules Governing Computer Hacking by Federal Agencies

Privacy International v. Federal Bureau of Investigation (WDNY)

Law enforcement agencies throughout the federal government now have access to powerful and intrusive hacking tools that can facilitate surreptitious, often remote, access to people’s cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. These hacking tools are increasingly available for purchase off-the-shelf by law enforcement agencies.

The clinic represents Privacy International and the American Civil Liberties Union in a significant Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that seeks to unearth basic information about how these tools are being used by seven federal law enforcement in the context of criminal, immigration, financial, and tax investigations. The lawsuit seeks to force the agencies to disclose information about the rules, protocols and legal interpretations that agencies may have adopted to govern these tools, as well as basic information about the procurement, capabilities, and oversight of these tools.

The case remains ongoing in federal district court in Buffalo.

Student Voices

  • Sept. 19, 2018 – Alex Betschen ’19, Shining a light on federal law enforcement’s use of computer hacking tools, Just Security.

News:

  • Dec. 21, 2018 – ACLU to feds: Your “hacking presents a unique threat to individual privacy”, Ars Technica
  • Jan. 5, 2019 – When can the feds hack into your computer?, The Buffalo News.

Resources:

Veterans Data Privacy Lawsuit

Vietnam Veterans of America v. Department of Defense (WDNY)

The Department of Defense operates a website that allows open, anonymous access to sensitive information about millions of veterans and service members. Through the website, anyone can obtain Social Security Number/name matches, dates of prior service and future call-up to active duty, among other information. The clinic represents Tom Barden, a retired Air Force Master Sergeant, and the Vietnam Veterans of America in a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Privacy Act and related laws. The lawsuit aims to force DoD to adopt proper security practices and to protect veterans against identity theft, frauds, and other abuses of their private data.

Following months of negotiations, the parties have reached a settlement-in-principle that would strictly limit use of the website to its sole legitimate use, which is to allow banks and similar institutions to verify whether a customer is an active-duty servicemember entitled to protection under the Servicemember Civil Relief Act.

News:

  • Aug. 1, 2017 – “Lawsuit accuses DoD of not securing millions of troops’ personal info,” Military Times
  • Aug. 1, 2017 – “Veterans Group Suing Department of Defense over privacy issue,” Spectrum News Buffalo
  • Aug. 11, 2017 – “Vets group sues Pentagon for not protecting private military records of millions of troops,” Miami Herald

Resources:

Amicus Brief - Transparency for Government AI and Surveillance Tech

Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media (U.S. Supreme Court)

The clinic wrote an amicus brief on behalf of a coalition of technology and civil rights organizations in a significant government transparency case pending in the U.S Supreme Court. The case concerns the extent to which the government may keep secret information provided by contractors, vendors, and other private companies. The brief focused on the use by government of extraordinarily powerful and increasingly pervasive technologies that are provided by private companies, including artificial intelligence systems, surveillance tools, and digital infrastructure. The brief urged the Court not to expand the scope of secrecy for such privately-sourced technology, which increasingly carry out core governmental functions.  

The brief was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, No. 18-481. The brief was written on behalf of the AI Now Institute, American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU Law School, and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

Resources:

Challenging Indefinite National Security Detention

Hassoun v. Searls (WDNY)

The clinic represents a stateless Palestinian man who the government seeks to detain indefinitely—potentially for the rest of his life—in a U.S. immigration facility under a post-9/11 national security regulation.  Our client has completed his criminal sentence and a Court has already continued detention in immigration custody is unlawful because there is no prospect of is removal.  The government, however, seeks to continue to hold him imprisoned indefinitely on national security grounds. The regulation in question purports to grant the Secretary of Homeland security the sole, unreviewable discretion to decide whether a person should be held imprisoned on national security grounds. It does not provide our client with the ability to be heard before a judge or neutral decision-maker, it does not allow him to challenge any witnesses against him, nor does it even allow him to see the evidence against him.

The clinic, together with the Community Justice Clinic, the ACLU, and the NYCLU, is challenging the constitutionality of this scheme of preventive detention in a habeas corpus petition alleging violations of basic constitutional principles of Due Process.

News:

Mar.26, 2019 – Testing novel power, Trump administration detains Palestinian after sentence ends, New York Times.

Burn Pits FOIA

The military has used open-air burn pits to dispose of all manner of hazardous waste on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, producing toxic clouds of thick, black smoke that envelope surrounding areas. Service members who worked and lived in the shadow of the burn pits are returning home with severe debilitating illnesses but are often denied treatment or disability benefits they have earned through their service. Civilians who live near U.S. bases are likewise getting sick.

The clinic represents Amnesty International USA in a series of Freedom of Information Act request to obtain basic information necessary to hold the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs accountable for this emerging crisis, which many describe as this generation’s Agent Orange.

News:

  • Nov. 11, 2017 – “Amnesty International files FOIA on burn pits,” AIUSA

Resources: