U-M professor spent two years with Department of Homeland Security

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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  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, in our related fields.”

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 in Queens – and I really enjoyed that. I wasn’t sure what kind of law I was interested in, but I found the varied subjects that were all put in the category really fascinating.”

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 one of the clinical projects.

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 Attorney General, 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 added to the team. Anxious for the trial experience, Schlanger asked to be put on it. 

While she got her start on prison reform in part by chance, what kept her committed to prison and jail work was the crucial role of litigation and what she felt as the moral gravity of the issues.

“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 for them 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. “For jails and prisons, the biggest issues for me were medical and mental health care, and protection of prisoners from each other. For police departments, the biggest issues I saw were use of force, and development of good supervision and monitoring systems.” 

Schlanger left the Department of Justice in 1998 to begin teaching. In the years since, she has become even more involved in non-litigation prison reform, serving on the Vera Institute’s blue ribbon Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons; working as an advisor on the development of proposed national standards implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA); and testifying before the Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

“The Vera Commission’s work was mostly about persuading legislators and those who run jails and prisons to take a fresh look at some key issues – conditions in solitary confinement, for example,” she says  “It was a great privilege, too, to be associated with the other Commissioners, and with the two chairs, former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and former Judge John Gibbons.”

Schlanger explains that prison rape was an issue in her very first prison case, and that she’s been working on prevention ever since. 

“Prison rape is a preventable problem, and PREA is an effort to take what has been learned over the past 20 years about prevention and implement those lessons nationwide,” she says. “The regulations the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission worked on actually only came out this year, so it’s been quite a slog, from passage of the statute in 2003, but already the effort has been a fruitful one, I think, and I hope we’ll see a really sharp improvement in the next couple of years.” 
Schlanger also served as chair of the Association of American Law Schools Section on Law and the Social Sciences; and as the reporter for the American Bar Association’s revision of its Criminal Justice Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners, a project started a few years earlier with another reporter who had completed a preliminary draft.  Schlanger’s job was to be the principal drafter on the final version, working with the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s Standards Committee, chaired by New York State Judge Marty Marcus.

“It was a great committee, bringing together judges, prosecutors, defenders, and academics. I worked really hard to give them a solid draft to review, and then we’d have these very, very long meetings, really working through the draft a line at a time, and I’d take it home and revise.”

The committee of 10 to 15 people spent about 10 full days of meetings. Then Schlanger wrote memos about the various choices made, and the committee adopted a draft. That draft went next to the Criminal Justice Section’s governing council, and then, finally, to the ABA governing body, the House of Delegates. Then Schlanger worked with colleagues to write comprehensive commentary on the standards, which went back to the Criminal Justice Standards Committee for review.

“It was quite an elaborate process, but I think the end result was really solid because of that,” she says. “It’s a document designed to be useful to anyone working on prison conditions or prison reform – courts, legislatures, prison and jail administrators, advocates.”

The results are available online; the committee also published the standards and three or four articles in a symposium in Georgetown Law School’s American Criminal Law Review.  

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. And the faculty has those same characteristics. It’s just a great place to teach law.” 

In addition to her teaching, she’s spent considerable time here, she says, running the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, a website (http://clearinghouse.net) that collects, organizes, and makes available information and documents relating to important civil rights injunctive cases in areas ranging from prison reform, immigration, employment discrimination, mental health deinstitutionalization, and many more.

In her leisure time, the New York native is active in her synagogue, plays the viola, loves to play chamber music, and is a busy mom of two 12-year-olds.

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