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SPLC's Top Cases of 2021

SPLC's 2021 case roundup in these focus areas: Voting Rights, Immigrant Justice, Criminal Justice, Economic Rights, Children’s Rights and LGBTQ Rights.

“The humanity of all Americans is diminished when any group is denied rights granted to others. This is not a special-interest case, but one that should be of great importance to everyone who believes in the principles of equality on which this nation was founded.”

Julian Bond, SPLC’s first president

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 50-year mission to battle racial and social injustice carries on in the courts. Here’s a roundup of recent key cases in our focus areas: Voting Rights, Immigrant Justice, Criminal Justice, Economic Rights, Children’s Rights and LGBTQ Rights.

Voting Rights

As a response to a heavy turnout, especially by people of color, in the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 U.S. Senate elections in 2021, Georgia’s state legislators moved swiftly to pass an anti-voting law, SB 202, that erects barriers for voters, especially those of color.

Many of its provisions are unconstitutional.

The SPLC and its allies sued Gov. Brian Kemp and several counties in Sixth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church v. Kemp. Co-counsels were American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Georgia, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. and the law firms of Davis Wright Tremaine and WilmerHale.

The lawsuit represents many organizations that are harmed by SB 202, including Black voters, new U.S. citizens, religious groups and people whose English proficiency is limited.

The suit was filed on March 2021, and it remains active.

Here’s the latest on the case.

Immigrant Justice

The SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project, along with co-counsels Community Justice Project and the Immigration Clinic of the University of Miami School of Law, won City of South Miami, et al. v. DeSantis, et al., a lawsuit against Florida’s anti-sanctuary cities bill, SB 168.

The Florida law, drafted in coordination with groups affiliated with white supremacists, including SPLC-designated hate groups, prohibited sanctuary policies and required local police to act as agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

As the SPLC and our community partners argued in the litigation, turning local police into federal immigration agents undermines any trust the police have built with the immigrant community, which ultimately undermines public safety for everyone in Florida.

The case was filed in July 2019 on behalf of nine organizational plaintiffs, and a bench trial was held in January 2021. In September, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding, among other things, that SB 168 was adopted with discriminatory intent. The state government has appealed the ruling.

The fight against SB 168 has been a long-running effort, made possible through building effective community partnerships, working closely with allies and advocates statewide, and strategic litigation. The SB 168 team is made up of seasoned litigators and committed paralegals and advocates, and this win is a testament to the type of litigation and legal advocacy that the SPLC strives to do more of.

To learn more about the case, click here.

Criminal Justice

In Fraihat, et al., v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, et al., the SPLC challenges conditions of detainment for medically vulnerable people in ICE custody. Co-counsels were Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center; Disability Rights Advocates; and Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP.

In April 2020, the Criminal Justice team secured a preliminary injunction from a federal court that — along with subsequent related orders — asked that ICE limit transfers to prevent the spread of COVID-19; to improve precautions in detention facilities; and, critically, to identify, review and, in many cases, release those people in ICE detention at high risk of COVID-19. Unfortunately, a panel with two Trump appointees in the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned this injunction.

Still, the Fraihat preliminary injunction has had an immense impact on keeping people safe in the pandemic. More than 20,000 medically vulnerable people have been released from ICE detention since April 2020 because of the order and subsequent enforcement efforts, which have been the fruit of the immense hard work and dedication of many current and former SPLC staff.

Read more about the case here.

Economic Justice

Driver’s licenses are key to maintaining employment and financial security for families and communities. Wealth-based driver’s license suspensions plunge families and communities into poverty, disproportionately affecting people of color.

The SPLC, along with co-counsel at ACLU-NC and ACLU (national) and Southern Center for Social Justice, filed Johnson v. Jessup in North Carolina. The suit challenged the DMV’s revocation of driver’s licenses without first providing sufficient notice of alternatives to full payment under state law and a hearing to assess a person’s ability to pay. Additionally, the suit sought to ensure that the licenses of people who cannot pay traffic fines and court costs are not revoked.

The court preliminarily approved a class settlement. The parties reached a settlement that provides funds to create and administer a public information website. The settlement also requires the DMV to use a revised notice for future revocations, issue notice to all class members whose licenses were previously revoked with information on reinstatement, provide training for DMV staff and share data for monitoring compliance with the settlement.

Read a summary of the case here.

Children’s Rights

Over the decades, mental health practitioners have determined that intense home- and community-based mental health services are more effective and less costly than institutionalizing children who have ongoing mental health needs or who endure a psychiatric crisis.

The SPLC filed AA v. Phillips in November 2019 after a yearslong investigation, describing Louisiana’s failure to provide adequate services and the fact that it places children on an endless cycle in and out of hospitals, psychiatric facilities and the juvenile justice system, often far from their homes.

Co-counsel were National Health Law Program (NHeLP), National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), Disability Rights Louisiana, and O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

This year, the court granted Class Certification to 47,500 Louisiana children who are entitled to but do not have access to Medicaid-funded mental health services. We believe it is the first (but hopefully not the last) case of its kind for the Deep South.

To learn more about the case, click here.


On Feb. 26, 2021, the SPLC filed an amended complaint in Diamond v. Ward et al., on behalf of Ashley Diamond, a Black transgender woman and civil rights activist. The suit also named the Georgia Department of Corrections as a defendant because of the state’s insistence on housing her in a men’s prison and its failures to provide protection from sexual victimization and medical care. The defendants refused to change course, instead targeting Diamond for retaliation and litigation advantage by charging her with dozens of discipline violations, placing her in solitary confinement and intimidating her witnesses. On April 9, 2021, the SPLC filed motions for a preliminary injunction and a protective order asking the court to step in to protect her while the litigation was pending. Unfortunately, the court has yet to grant the request to have Diamond transferred to a female facility. She continues to be sexually victimized and targeted with discipline violations to punish her for her advocacy by derailing her chances of parole or transfer.

The court held a hearing on our motions for May 12, 2021. After two days of testimony and evidence, and because the defendants refused to turn over documents before the hearing, the court took our motions under advisement, giving the SPLC an opportunity to file a supplemental brief after receiving the documents that were being withheld. In the meantime, we have been engaging in the discovery process, with defendants receiving multiple extensions of time to provide documents. We filed the supplemental brief on Nov. 23, 2021, and the court granted the defendants until Feb. 7, 2022, to respond. The discovery process continues as we march toward a trial.

Read about the case here.

Photo at top: A collection of images from the landmark cases pursued by Southern Poverty Law Center. (Credit: SPLC)