Bloomberg and Proskauer are sponsoring Equal Justice Works Fellow Casey Smith, who will work at the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project. Casey, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, will contribute to the defense of individuals unjustly prosecuted for voting. Casey also will help to develop impact litigation that challenges statutes imposing harsh penalties upon people who vote without realizing they are ineligible to do so.

In this interview, Casey discusses her important work.

Please describe your fellowship:

My fellowship is about lessening the criminal and immigration consequences of voting for people with prior felony convictions and noncitizens. I will support clients who try to vote – thinking they are eligible to do so – and end up facing serious consequences, like being criminally prosecuted or having their immigration status impacted. In addition, I will pursue broader advocacy efforts, like impact litigation, to combat this criminalization of the ballot box.

In what context are people criminally prosecuted for voting and to what extent is this a real problem today?

Many states disenfranchise people who have been convicted of felonies, and many also make it a crime to register or vote while ineligible. Current laws about re-enfranchisement after a felony conviction vary a lot from state to state. Those laws can be extremely complicated to navigate, as people often aren’t provided clear information as to their eligibility. Sometimes people make a mistake and try to vote, not realizing they are not eligible to do so.

After recent elections, prosecutors and state officials have investigated and charged people – mostly people of color – who made the mistake of trying to vote while ineligible. We are seeing an uptick in these prosecutions in many states, including Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota, and Florida. States are even moving to have greater police and prosecutor involvement with elections; for example, Florida recently created a new election police force to charge more people for voting-related crimes. There is a real need for a large-scale and national response to these prosecutions.

Why is this work so important?   

The criminalization of voting is a racial justice issue. Historically, passing felon disenfranchisement laws and prosecuting voting were some of many ways states tried to suppress the votes of Black people and other minorities. Now, this practice is resurging, and prosecutors are still targeting people of color. (For instance, recent ACLU data showed that the election unit of the Texas Attorney General’s office has disproportionately charged and investigated Black and Latinx people for voting unlawfully.)

On an individual level, it is a terrifying ordeal for those affected – imagine having police burst into your home and arrest you, putting you at risk of being incarcerated, all because you tried to vote. On a wide scale, these prosecutions could chill voting among the communities of color who are targeted, even among those who are eligible to vote, because it is very frightening for people to know they could be arrested, imprisoned, or deported if they make a simple mistake as to their eligibility.

What kind of work will your fellowship include?  

My project will seek to improve access to counsel for people charged with voting unlawfully, building defense and immigration lawyers’ capacity to represent people in voter prosecution cases. I also plan to develop impact litigation challenging the laws that make it a crime to try to vote when ineligible, and inform the public more about this issue.

How did you become interested in election protection and this issue in particular?

I grew up in North Carolina, and I volunteered on campaigns as an election protection volunteer there. I met people who were trying to vote but faced all kinds of barriers to do so, and I saw how confusing our eligibility rules could be. Over the past few years, North Carolina officials prosecuted dozens of people, mostly people of color, for allegedly voting unlawfully, and they have sought very harsh sentences of multiple years in prison. Making someone go through the ordeal of a criminal prosecution and trying to incarcerate or deport them, just for trying to participate in our democracy, struck me as a cruel and racist voter suppression tactic.

Also, before law school I worked in immigration law, and in my law school clinics I represented clients seeking release from prison and post-conviction relief. So I look forward to continuing to support clients in their immigration and criminal matters in a way that also advances voting rights.

Please discuss the power of an Equal Justice Works fellowship and your partnership with Bloomberg and Proskauer.  

Equal Justice Works partners each fellow with a host organization and a sponsor who work together to tackle an unmet legal need. I am grateful that I found a host organization and sponsors that are uniquely positioned to make real progress to combat the criminalization of voting. The ACLU Voting Rights Project, my host, is a national voting rights organization with litigation and advocacy capacity in every state. It is very well suited to address this voting rights issue emerging across multiple states, like the case of Ms. Crystal Mason who was sentenced to five years in prison for trying to cast a ballot when she did not know that Texas considered her ineligible. By advocating for clients like Ms. Mason and witnessing the immense injustices they face, ACLU attorneys are very motivated to support more people affected by voter prosecutions and to work to end this practice.

Bloomberg and Proskauer bring crucial pro bono capacities to this project, and I look forward to collaborating with them to make progress on this issue.

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Photo of William C. Silverman William C. Silverman

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer…

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer lawyers and ensuring widespread participation in these projects.

Bill has robust private and public sector experience and a strong criminal and civil background. He has worked extensively on government investigations and white collar criminal matters, as well as complex civil litigation in federal and state courts. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he led criminal investigations, conducted trials and handled Second Circuit appeals.

Throughout his career, Bill has dedicated himself to the promotion of equal access to justice through pro bono service, particularly in the area of family court, anti-trafficking, and immigration.

Bill spearheaded a partnership among several law firms, corporations and the New York City Family Court to provide free legal advice to pro se litigants. The New York City Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program now has more than 400 volunteer attorneys from 40 major firms and corporations. Bill also helped build a coalition of organizations in a successful effort to secure additional Family Court judges in New York. He is now part of an effort spearheaded by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to simplify the New York Court System from 11 trial courts to three.

Bill serves as counsel to the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. In that capacity he has been a strong advocate for changes in the law and public policy to protect victims of human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. He also represents individual clients in this area, including a successful federal lawsuit brought on behalf of a trafficking victim against her traffickers. For his work, he was named by domestic violence nonprofit Sanctuary For Families as one of “New York’s New Abolitionists.”

Bill has spoken at numerous conferences and events, including New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearings on Civil Legal Services and the American Bar Association’s Equal Justice Conference. In 2014, he attended a meeting at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and other policymakers on the need for access to legal services in immigration proceedings.

Bill has been recognized for his public service with the Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award from Sanctuary For Families and Columbia Law School (2019); the Special Leadership Award for All-Around Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility & the Law from City & State Reports (2015); the Commitment to Justice Award for Outstanding Partner from inMotion (2008); and the Matthew G. Leonard Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Achievement from MFY Legal Services (2007).

Outside of his work at the firm, Bill serves on various committees and non-profit boards. Bill is currently chairman of the Fund for Modern Courts, a non-partisan citizen organization devoted to improving New York State courts, and is formerly chairman of Legal Information For Families Today (LIFT), an organization devoted to unrepresented litigants in Family Court.