Civil Rights Legal Information

OVERVIEW

Civil rights lawyers protect people’s civil rights -- enforceable rights or privileges given to individuals by the law. Under the law, individuals, businesses and governments may not violate a person’s civil rights. If they do so anyway, that person has the right to sue the entity that violated his or her rights to correct the wrong, and for any financial damages that result. Civil rights lawyers help victims of civil rights violations file and pursue these lawsuits.

Civil rights law in the United States is most often associated with laws protecting certain groups of people from discrimination. However, everyone -- regardless of race, gender, income or other factors -- has civil rights.



“WHAT CIVIL RIGHTS ARE IN THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION?”

The U.S. Constitution outlines civil rights that the government may not interfere with. The Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the Constitution, outlines these basic rights, among others:

  • Free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly and association.
  • Keep and use firearms.
  • Be free of unauthorized or unreasonable searches and seizure of property.
  • Not be forced to testify against yourself, not be tried twice for the same crime, and to have fair compensation if the government takes your property.
  • Have a speedy and public trial by jury if accused of a crime, and be read your Miranda rights at arrest.
  • Have a trial by jury when sued.
  • Be free of cruel and unusual punishment, and have bail available.

Later Constitutional amendments added the civil rights to:

  • Be free of enslavement.
  • Be considered a citizen if born in the United States, and be free of interference in your civil rights by the states.
  • Have the right to vote regardless of color, race or previous status as a slave.
  • Have the right to vote regardless of sex.
  • Have the right to vote regardless of whether you paid a poll tax.
  • Have the right to vote if you are at least 18 years old.

There are also “implied rights” that come from judges’ interpretation of the Constitution, such as the right to privacy found in the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut. Many rights have been provided by courts in this matter.


“WHAT ARE SOME OTHER MAJOR FEDERAL CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS?”

Major civil rights legislation passed by Congress includes:

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark bill was intended to help African Americans become equal citizens, but includes religion, sex and national origin in the groups it protects from employment discrimination. It prohibits discrimination by businesses that serve the public; state and local governments; entities that receive federal money; and employers. It also authorized the federal government to sue to desegregate public schools, and required equal application of voter registration requirements.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965. This bill ended literacy tests at the polls and prohibited other devices that could be used to disenfranchise minority voters.
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which requires employers to give the same pay to men and women who do the same jobs.
  • The Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in selling, renting or financing housing on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, family status and disability.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which protects people over 40 from discrimination based on their age.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which requires accommodations for disabled people in public and at work, and prohibits disability-based discrimination.


“DO STATES PROTECT THEIR CITIZENS’ CIVIL RIGHTS?”

All states have some form of civil rights legislation, including civil rights written into state constitutions. Frequently, a state has multiple laws protecting citizens’ civil rights. These laws prohibit discrimination in the same ways that federal anti-discrimination laws do, but often apply to a broader group of people and organizations. For example, most prohibit discrimination by state and local governments, which are not included in many federal civil rights laws.

States can, and sometimes do, give their citizens civil rights beyond what federal law allows. For example, 17 states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.


“WHAT CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS APPLY TO CRIMINAL CASES?”

If you are accused of a crime, you have the right to:

  • Have your rights read to you. These rights are sometimes called your Miranda rights, after the court case that made them mandatory.
  • Have non-excessive bail set.
  • Have a grand jury decide whether you should be indicted.
  • Be free of unreasonable searches and seizures of property. That is, law enforcement must have a warrant.
  • Be free of cruel and unusual punishment. Courts still debate what is considered cruel and unusual.
  • Have a trial by a jury of fellow citizens.
  • Have a speedy trial in public.
  • Not be compelled to testify against yourself. This is the right to “take the Fifth.”
  • Not to be tried twice for the same crime, which is sometimes called “double jeopardy.”
  • Seek relief from unlawful imprisonment. You do this with a writ of habeas corpus.


“WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I THINK MY CIVIL RIGHTS WERE VIOLATED?”

If you believe your civil rights were violated, you should save as much paperwork and other written information as possible that’s related to the incident. If there is a state or federal government agency that can help, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you should contact that agency to discuss your case, and bring the documentation. In some cases, you can also try complaining directly to the person or organization that violated your rights. However, this can sometimes lead to illegal retaliation against you.

If you can’t find a remedy directly or through an agency, you should contact a civil rights lawyer. Bring your documentation to show the civil rights lawyer, and try to answer all of his or her questions as thoroughly as possible. If the civil rights lawyer agrees to represent you, you will file a lawsuit against the person or entity that violated your rights. In a civil rights lawsuit, you can win back any financial losses, reinstatement of a job or property that was taken and other damages. In a criminal case, winning a civil rights case can mean freedom even if you’ve been convicted.



PAYMENT

Civil rights lawyers usually work on contingency. That means they don’t ask for lawyers’ fees up front; instead, they take a percentage of clients’ winnings. You should agree in advance with your civil rights lawyer on what this percentage will be. If you don’t win the case, the civil rights lawyer doesn’t get paid at all. This allows civil rights lawyers to represent individuals who might not be able to afford to pay a lawyer throughout a long case.

Some civil rights lawyers are public interest lawyers, which means they work for nonprofit organizations seeking to serve low-income people, or which seek to advance a point of view. These organizations will not ask for payment, or ask only for very little payment. However, because they don’t have much money, they must be extremely selective about which cases they take. They will likely only take a case if it advances their organization’s interests, and if they believe they can win.