In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I find myself thinking of the many race discrimination cases that I have litigated over my nearly 3 decade career as a civil rights attorney. One case from over 20 years ago sticks out because it demonstrates the depths which bigots will sink to get away with civil rights violations, and the ways those bigots can be defeated in a particularly poignant way.
In this particular case, my clients were an African-American man and a Korean-American woman. They attended a party one night and as they got in their car to drive home, they concluded that they had too much to drink to drive safely home, so they decided to spend the night at the nearest motel, The Highlander, which had a “vacancy” sign posted.
The African-American man went to the office and the Chinese-American man (who turned out to be the owner) who was working at the desk told him, “no rooms for you.” My client accepted this and returned to his girlfriend waiting in the car.
However, his girlfriend suspected discrimination since the “vacancy” sign was still lit up. So, she decided to try to get a room herself, and sure enough, all of a sudden a room became available.
When I first met my clients, I informed them that while I thought we could win this case, I also thought that it would not be worth very much in damages since they did, in fact, get a room for the night. However, my clients were indignant and wanted to file a complaint so this hotel owner would know that he could not discriminate against other African-American clients. Since the damages were unlikely to be high, rather than file a lawsuit, I filed a complaint with the Madison Equal Opportunity Commission (MEOC).
The MEOC investigated, found probable cause for discrimination, and attempted to conciliate the case, but the hotel owner insisted that he had not discriminated against my clients, so the case proceeded to hearing. As we would find out at the hearing, the fact that the long time, well respected MEOC hearing officer, Clifford Blackwell III, is blind, would play a role in the hotel owner’s defense.
When the hotel owner testified at the hearing, he claimed that he could not have discriminated because he thought that my Korean-American client was African-American. He argued that my African-American client simply misunderstood him.
Since Judge Blackwell is blind, I was then forced to have every subsequent witness describe my Korean-American client’s facial features and her hair and conclude that it was impossible to conclude that she was African-American. Indeed, my client had classic Korean physical features.
Fortunately, in a genuine case of justice being blind, Judge Blackwell was not duped by the bigoted hotel owner. He concluded that the hotel owner had discriminated against my African-American client. He awarded him a small amount of damages, but also required the hotel owner to pay my attorney’s fees, as required in winning civil rights cases.
Sadly, the Trayvon Martin case did not end up with blind justice. Perhaps a blind judge and jury would have come to a more just verdict.