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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.

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Black Lives Matter

Issue Area: Civil Rights

Fair treatment in our justice system is a basic American right.  Everyone deserves equal protection under the law and to be treated with dignity and respect. 
The recent failures to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men clearly violate the principles of fairness and equal access to justice, undermining the rights granted to all of us under the United States Constitution.
Here at Empire Justice Center, we mourn the fallen and stand in solidarity with their families as well as all of those that have been affected by the inequities in our justice system that have been highlighted in the past several weeks.

We recommit ourselves to the pursuit of racial justice in all aspects of the justice system.
Will you join us?

Sleeping Bags on Sidewalks

Issue Area: Consumer

I live around the corner from St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center in Rochester, New York, which provides free breakfasts to people that need one in my neighborhood.  So many mornings, there are so many people waiting for breakfast, that I literally walk around them sleeping on the sidewalk, waiting for the doors to open.  This time of year, these folks are more often than not lying directly on the sidewalk or in the doorway with a blanket or sleeping bag over them, trying to find some kind of warmth.

This morning, there was a woman younger than me with four small children under one sleeping bag on the sidewalk.  One of the children woke as I walked by, and in her tiny voice asked me if breakfast was ready.  It made me pause and wonder how this family had come to be on this sidewalk on this morning.

At Empire Justice Center, I work in the Consumer Finance and Housing Unit, helping local families avoid foreclosure.  My work day is full of bank statements, paystubs, legal motions, court filings and endless bank applications - doing everything I can to keep people in their homes.  I spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about principal reductions, mortgage servicing violations, urban blight and opposing counsel. 

This morning, along with the bank statements and paystubs, I will be thinking about sleeping bags on sidewalks.

Of course I have no idea if that little girl and her family once had a house that was lost to foreclosure - there are countless paths that could have led them to that sidewalk on South Avenue.  In our busy jobs, it’s easy to become immune to the numbers and to the stories behind the problems that we’re trying to solve. 

Sometimes it’s just too easy to pass by the sleeping bags on the sidewalks, and the tiny voices and puffy eyes of small children.  But I think in the days ahead, I might do my job better if I keep this morning’s walk to work in mind.

Summer 2014: A Great Experience for our Diversity Fellow, Tianna Bethune!

Issue Area: Consumer

Written by Tianna Bethune, Empire Justice Center 2014 Diversity Fellow

This summer, I had the opportunity to move back to my hometown of Rochester, New York and work with an extraordinary group of attorneys at Empire Justice Center.  With great pleasure, I accepted the position as the first Diversity Fellow and I am very glad that I did!  This summer has been full of fulfilling learning experiences.  I was given the opportunity to work directly with clients, attend a mediation session, help prepare a case to be filed in federal court and more!  I am especially appreciative of my supervisors Peter Dellinger, Reyna Ramolete and Bryan Hetherington.  They afforded me the privilege to work in an environment free from micromanagement where I was able to put my research, writing and time management skills to the test.

I was introduced to three new areas of law: consumer law, real estate law and employment law.  In consumer law, I worked on a case that required me to gain experience in contracts, specifically the nuances associated with exculpatory clauses.  In the area of real estate, I assisted a client by researching transactions, fraud, misrepresentation and warranties.  In the employment law context, I calculated damages, wrote a complaint and prepared the documents to file a Fair Labor Standards Act case in federal court.  The diversity in my work load allowed me to narrow my focus on what I would like to do after graduation.  This is invaluable in that every student fears making the mistake of accepting a position that they dread being in after law school. 

In addition, I was given the opportunity to write a policy memorandum for Bryan Hetherington, Chief Counsel in the Rochester office.  As a student, it was priceless to receive direct mentorship from a leader in the legal community.  Mr. Hetherington actually took the time to read each of my drafts, while patiently guiding me through the writing process.  This was a tremendous learning experience because my law school courses had not prepared me to simultaneously advocate to both members and non-members of the legal community.

I decided to apply for a position with Empire Justice Center because their commitment to serving the community and giving back is aligned with my interests.  I would definitely recommend other law students who are interested in public interest law to apply for a position with this organization.  The environment cultivated by the individuals in this office is very relaxed, welcoming and inspiring.  I am truly grateful for the experience.

Tags: Diversity Fellowship

Empire Justice Center Partnering with New York Disability Vote Network to Bolster Political Capital of Individuals with Disabilities

Written by Nicholas M. Lind, 2014 Policy Intern

New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN) Strengthens Individuals with Disabilities

Empire Justice Center is proud to announce our partnership with the New York Disability Vote Network (NYDVN), a project of the Center for Disability Rights.  NYDVN strives to build, solidify and unify a disability voting bloc in New York State.  The network – the first of its kind in the State – will serve as a vehicle to promote a nonpartisan disability-friendly agenda initially focusing on health care, housing, transportation and employment.

NYDVN is developing at a time when voting rights for individuals with disabilities have come under attack.  In Los Angeles, the Disability and Abuse Project recently submitted a Voting Rights Act complaint to the U.S. Justice Department when officials limited the voting rights of individuals with disabilities who enter into conservatorships, legal arrangements in which parents or guardians are appointed to make certain financial or medical decisions. [1]

Bruce Darling, CEO of the Center for Disability Rights, commented in a statement released by CDR that, “People with disabilities have to fight for their civil rights every day.  Now New York will have a coordinated effort to ensure that the same people are also fighting for their rights in the voting booth as well.”  Kenyatta Dacosta, a community member, was also quoted in the report, remarking, “This project is important because it will allow elected officials to easily see how many people are affected by issues concerning disabilities.” [2]

Organizing a Disability Voting Bloc

A national movement led by the American Association for People with Disabilities has arisen in response to wide gaps in voting patterns between individuals with disabilities and individuals without disabilities.  In addition to New York’s campaign, similar voting and political networks have been created in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, North Carolina and California. [3]

Click here for a list of easy ways to make a difference and get involved!

Researchers that have studied political and voting participation of individuals with disabilities found that from 1992-2002, voter turnout for people with disabilities was 14-21 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities who had similar demographic characteristics. [4]

One factor leading to lower voter turnout may be persistent barriers to accessible polling places.  A review conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that in 2000, 84% of polling places had potential impediments to access, and by 2008 that number had only fell to 73%. [5]

Even when physical barriers to participation are overcome, social and psychological characteristics of disabilities sometimes hinder voter turnout by decreasing an individual’s social capital and identification with mainstream society. [6]  Reaching out to voters not only informs them of the issues at stake but also counters feelings of segregation.

Despite these barriers, it appears that the movement to improve turnout of voters with disabilities is having an impact.  In 2008, the participation gap fell to 7% and by 2010 it had slid to 3%. [7]  NYDVN will work to cement the progress made in voter accessibility, and will turn toward the next step of political organizing: solidifying the disability voting bloc.  Importantly, statistics show that voter turnout among people with disabilities is positively correlated with developing group consciousness with a political party or organization (such as NYDVN), commitment to specific policies and involvement with formal or informal networks of like-minded peers. [8]

Making Progress: Gaining a Unified Voice

Political organizing efforts similar to NYDVN have proven effective at gaining the attention of policymakers.  Former Congressmen Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Tony Coelho (D-California) agree that “one of the biggest challenges [within the disability community] is uniting around common identity and common struggles.  When the community does unite, however, there is no stopping its strength and power.”

“It is estimated there are more than 65.7 million family caregivers, supporting relatives with disabilities and seniors at home,” Dole and Coelho write.  “Add to this the millions of direct-care workers, other professionals and friends who care about loved ones with disabilities.  You start to get the picture.  This is clearly an important constituency!” [9]

For more information, please contact Jessica Thurber, Voter Rights Coordinator at the Center for Disability Rights at jthurber@cdrnys.

End Notes:
 [1] Michael R. Blood. (2014, July 10). “Disabled people denied voting rights, group says.” Associated Press. Retrieved from
 [2] “New Website Geared at NY Voters with Disabilities” Press Release, The Center for Disability Rights (CDR). Retrieved from
 [3] Each source provides information on voter organizing within a specific state.  See “Ohio Disability Vote Coalition Seeks People to Join its Voting Bloc” (2012, March 15). Disability Rights Ohio. Retrieved from; “Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access for Americans with Disabilities”. (2014). Services: Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from ; “Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition” (2012). Retrieved from; “Rhode Island Disability Vote Project”. (2011). Retrieved from; “Vote 2012! Your Right. Your Voice.: A Guide to voting for North Carolinians with Disabilities”. (2012). Disability Rights North Carolina. Retrieved from; and “All About the Disability Organizing Network”. (2014). DONetwork. Retrieved from
 [4] “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see  “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [5] “Voters with Disabilities: Additional Monitoring of Polling Places Could Further Improve Accessibility” (September 2009). Report to Congressional Requesters, United States Government Accountability Office. GAO-09-941. Retrieved from
 [6] “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [7] See “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2008 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, July 2009. And “Fact sheet:  Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2010 Elections,” by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, June 2011.
 [8] See “Voting,” in Gary Albrecht, ed., Encyclopedia of Disability (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2005).  By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, and Kay Schriner. And also see “Enabling Democracy: Disability and Voter Turnout,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2002, pp. 167-190. By Lisa Schur, Todd Shields, Douglas Kruse, and Kay Schriner.
 [9] Bob Dole and Tony Coelho. (2012, September 16). “Disabled voters possess untapped political power”. Politico. Retrieved from

Tags: disability rights | Center for Disability Rights | Voting Rights Act

Welfare, Work Rules and Education: The 2014 Changes

Issue Area: Public Benefits

With the 2013-2014 state legislative session over, we are excited to share news of expanded access to education and training for welfare recipients, a long-time priority for Empire Justice and for me personally.  As is often the case for me, this was the work of a coalition, the Education Task Force, with crucial leadership and energy provided by the Welfare Rights Initiative.

For the first time, participation in a four year college program can now count towards a welfare recipient’s work requirement.  Placing four year college on the list of “countable activities” is a crucial step in enabling individuals to receive public assistance and pursue a four year degree. 

The details are somewhat complicated.  Basically, for 12 months, college and related activities can comprise the bulk of a person’s work obligation.  After 12 months, college must be combined with at least 20 hours of participation in, for example, paid employment, work experience or on-the-job-training.

Another significant revision relates to work preferences.  A rule stating that client activity preferences must, when feasible, be honored has long been the law for households with children.  This rule now applies to all households.  If the preferred activity is not assigned, the reasons must be set forth in writing. 

Some comments about these amendments:

  1. These changes can significantly improve access to education and training for welfare recipients, perhaps the wisest investment that can be made with public assistance dollars.
  2. There is still considerable local discretion about assigning a person to college.  However, we would argue that where college is an appropriate activity, it cannot be arbitrarily denied. 
  3. Homework:  We were unable to secure a mandate that districts count homework hours as work.  But districts have discretion to allow homework hours to count, and some already do.

As I have often observed, the people we seek to serve may be unaware of rights such as these, and may struggle to advocate in support of their rights if confronted by an overworked, not very supportive agency staffer.  I fear that these laws barely exist unless advocates educate their clients and local agencies, and demand that they be fully and fairly implemented.

Click here for a more detailed analysis.

Tags: welfare | public assistance | work rules | education | college