Litigation Opens the Dialogue for Social Change

Can civil liberties litigation be used as a tool to induce social change?

That was the question addressed in a recent lecture by Jules Lobel, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, author of the influential book Success Without Victory: Lost Legal Battles and the Long Road to Justice in America, and the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a prominent human and civil rights organization.

In his lecture, co-sponsored by the Law, Societies, and Justice Program, Lobel illustrated his arguments through a focus on his recent work on behalf of the prisoners in long-term solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay supermax prison.

Lobel started the discussion by describing his early experience litigating cases during the Reagan administration and his consistent losses in the courtroom. Despite success in the lower courts, Lobel was unable to win any of the cases that he brought to the Supreme Court.

Yet even with this losing record, he said that casework is just the beginning of a broader movement.

“Litigation is actually one of the most effective ways of movements obtaining publicity for a cause, and is often used by movements as a crucial organizing tool,” Lobel said. “Now, I think this view of not looking at success or failure in terms of courtroom victory, or winning or losing, but looking at in terms of the broader goals of developing a movement, is particularly important in this era because we are faced with very, very conservative courts.”

After elaborating on the importance of bringing civil liberties cases to court regardless of the eventual outcome, Lobel described his current work regarding extended solitary confinement in Pelican Bay. Lobel said that there are nearly 1,000 inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, that nearly half of them have been in solitary for ten years, and that 80 have been in solitary there for over 20 years.

Inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay are kept in their cells twenty-three hours a day, are not allowed any phone conversations with the outside world, and cannot participate in any of the educational or vocational training services afforded to other inmates. The inmates essentially spend their entire incarcerated lives in an 80 square foot cell in complete isolation without any portal to the outside world save a singular meal slot in their door.

Lobel said that the solitary confinement conditions at Pelican Bay had been previously challenged and upheld by the California Courts, but that the challenge occurred over twenty years ago and that the extended time inmates have been subjected to the conditions adds a new dimension to the case. He is also attempting to give voice to the movement occurring within the prisons protesting solitary confinement through coordinated hunger strikes and raising greater awareness amongst the general public.

Lobel’s overarching goal with his work with the Center for Constitutional Rights is, he said, “To help the movements that they represent, to help the organizations they represent, to help the clients they represent get their voices heard, and build their movements.”

Professor Lobel closed his lecture by saying, “I hope that my work, and I hope that your work, will go beyond winning and losing, and that you’ll have some impact on public opinion, about the way people view justice on a political and social movement. I also hope that you will use the law to give meaning to your life, to reflect your own values, to try to bring justice to people who don’t have justice as opposed to simply viewing it as winning and losing in the court.”


This article was written by Chase Beauclair.