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A familiar face in DC: rising SCSJ voting rights attorney argues first case at SCOTUS

Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, argued Tuesday for the first time at the U.S. Supreme Court. (photo provided by SCSJ)

Allison Riggs argued at the U.S. Supreme Court this week for the first time, solidifying her rapid rise to the top in the world of voting rights litigation.

Riggs, 36, is the senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice(SCSJ). She already has several federal court victories under her belt, including the successful challenge to North Carolina’s “monster” voter suppression law in the Fourth Circuit of Appeals.

She is usually arguing for fair voting districts in North Carolina, but this week she took on racial gerrymandering in Texas in Abbot v. Perez at the nation’s highest court.

Riggs called the experience amazing, “flat out, no matter what,” but said to stand up at the high court and be able to fight for what’s right and to be able to paint a picture of what it’s like for people of color to vote in Texas made it all the more meaningful.

“It sort of takes the honor to a whole new level,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Riggs spent a ton of time preparing in what is called a moot, or practice round of court. She completed five moots in six days and felt like after, she was in pretty good shape for the real thing.

“There wasn’t a question I got [at the Tuesday hearing] that I hadn’t already heard in my moots,” she said.

SCSJ is a community-based civil rights legal non-profit in Durham that was created a little over a decade ago. It has since become a national leader in the voting rights field, successfully challenging racial gerrymandering efforts in North Carolina at nearly every level of government — congressional, state legislative, county, city and school board.

The most recent cases they were involved in include North Carolina v. Covington, the racial gerrymandering case that led to a special master’s involvement in the redrawing of legislative districts, and Common Cause v. Rucho/League of Women Voters v. Rucho, partisan gerrymandering cases that resulted in the state’s congressional plan being tossed out.

SCSJ currently has three cases pending at the high court.

The Texas case that SCSJ is involved in centers on questions of racial gerrymandering and how much say voters of color have in electing who represents them — 11 political districts are on the line. At the heart of the case is whether Texas lawmakers intentionally diminished the voting power of Hispanic and black voters to keep white incumbents in office, according to the Texas Tribune.

SCOTUSblog has a full rundown of Tuesday’s hearing online, including Rigg’s argument on behalf of the statehouse plan.

She tried to convince the justices that the Texas legislature had enacted its 2013 plan to “perpetuate its ill-gotten and racially discriminatory 2011 gains,” the post states.

Riggs speculated that justices might break on ideological grounds on the racial gerrymandering merits of the case (though Justice Anthony Kennedy didn’t tip his hand, she said) but she thinks they have a good chance of winning the jurisdiction argument involved in the case.

Several people from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice turned out Tuesday to the U.S. Supreme Court to support Allison Rigg’s first argument there. (Photo provided by SCSJ)

Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, communications director at SCSJ, described Riggs as a passionate and brilliant attorney “who is a force to be reckoned with.” He said her past victories didn’t matter much to her Tuesday.

“Riggs takes every case one at a time, much like a quarterback takes one game at a time,” he said, adding that she was prepared to be “laser focused, standing before our nation’s highest court, ready to advocate for voting districts that do not discriminate against voters based on race.”

Several folks from SCSJ were there to show their support, including former founder Anita Earls, who left to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court.

Everyone’s support meant a lot to Riggs, but Earls’ was particularly special.

“Anita is my mentor — she’s my person,” she said. “Her feedback and guidance means the world to me.”

She said Earls helped her along the way by giving her feedback and guidance that she was able to incorporate into a stronger argument at Tuesday’s hearing.

“She’s the only reason I was there yesterday,” Riggs said. “Before we started arguing, I turned around to make eye contact with her and she gave me a huge smile and a nod, like ‘you got this.'”

Riggs said she also thought it meant a lot to Earls to see her at the Supreme Court because it meant that SCSJ’s work would continue even as she went on a different path.

Riggs hopes Tuesday won’t be her only trip to the Supreme Court. She said she is just shy of her 37th birthday and hopes to have a long career ahead of her, in which she can become a good Supreme Court advocate.

She also promised that the fight for fair voting districts wouldn’t end here.

“Regardless of what happens, we’ll brush ourselves off and get up to fight another day,” she said.

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