Professor, Students Help Draft Senate Bill To Expand Civil Rights Act

Dayna Bowen Matthew

Professor Dayna Bowen Matthew, a leader in public health who focuses on racial disparities in health care, joined the Virginia faculty in 2017. Photo by Bill Petros

September 26, 2019

Professor Dayna Bowen Matthew ’87 of the University of Virginia School of Law and five of her students helped draft legislation now before Congress that aims to reduce environmental harms to minority communities. 

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Environmental Justice Act of 2019 in July. It would require the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments to act directly to alleviate environmental injustices, such as the lead-contaminated water supply in Newark, New Jersey, where the senator lives. Brownfields, landfills, power plants and interstate highways are other potential sources of toxic contamination that disproportionately affect people of color.

The act would bolster legal protections for those affected by environmental injustices in conjunction with the Civil Rights Act.

“Due to the impact of pollution, the health of minority populations has suffered dramatically for decades, so this bill intends to reinforce the legal obligation of federal agencies to address and eliminate the disproportionate impact of environmental discrimination on health,” Matthew said.

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Sandoval that the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI, which prevents discrimination by programs and activities that receive federal funds, did not include the right of plaintiffs to bring private lawsuits based on evidence of disparate impact. Currently, citizens must rely on federal agencies to bring such actions on their behalf. The new law would change that.

Matthew, whose expertise includes a focus on racial disparities in health care, was recruited by a coalition of reform-minded lawyers to craft a legislative provision that would reverse Sandoval. Jeremy Bennie ’18, Campbell Haynes ’19, Jianne McDonald ’19, Toccara Nelson ’19 and Graham Pittman ’19 volunteered to help.

The professor previously served as senior adviser to the director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, where she expedited cases on behalf of historically vulnerable communities besieged by pollution. She was also a member of the health policy team for U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

“When I was at the EPA, one of the problems we saw, for example, was that although the Office of Civil Rights is charged with responding to complaints from localities and communities that believe they have been exposed to pollution, the EPA had not in any responsible way responded,” she said, adding that some cases had stagnated for upwards of 20 years.

Jianne McDonald
Jianne McDonald ’19

McDonald, now an associate at Butler Snow in Nashville, Tennessee, said she volunteered for the project because she admired Matthew’s work in public health and wanted to work alongside her on the project that offered a solution.

“It was interesting to see the work and manpower that went into the preliminary stages of drafting a bill,” said McDonald, a former president of the Law School’s Black Law Students Association. “Now that it’s been filed, I hope the bill encourages policymakers and the public to examine the impact of the environment and climate change in the lives of everyday Americans, and that it’s another step in taking environmental justice seriously.”

Matthew joined the faculty in 2017. She is the author of the book “Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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