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Rice, Constance LaMay

Constance LaMay Rice

1956—

Lawyer

Constance LaMay Rice has dedicated her career to protecting the legal, social, and economic rights of poor and marginalized people. As a co-director of the Los Angeles office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund and as co-founder of the public policy and legal action organization the Advancement Project, Rice has fought hard to change social systems that, in her view, deny justice and equality to large segments of the population. The aim of many of her legal cases, she explained in a feature in Pasadena Weekly magazine, has been "to help the poor end their own poverty."

A native of Washington, D.C., Rice was born on April 5, 1956, and grew up in a strong, supportive family. Her parents both worked; her mother, Anna L. Barnes Rice, as a science teacher; and her father, Phillip Leon Rice, as U.S. Air Force colonel. The family moved often when Rice was a girl, and she attended school in London, England, before completing high school in Texas in 1974. She went on to graduate from Harvard University in 1978 with a degree in government. Aside from her academic talents, Rice developed a strong physical education as well. Her commitment came after having been physically attacked by a man when she was in college. Rice had been unable to fight back against her assailant; as she explained in Pasadena Weekly, "it didn't occur to me because I hadn't been trained to fight." Rice determined to learn to protect herself. She succeeded, earning a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do in 1980. Rice was the first female student her respected Tae Kwon Do teacher had ever accepted.

Rice continued her education in 1980 when she entered the New York University School of Law after being awarded the Root Tilden Public Interest Scholarship. As a student, she served as law clerk for the State of New York Department of Law and also worked under the mentorship of NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Lani Guinier. Completing her law degree in 1984, Rice served as law clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit judge Damon J. Keith in Detroit, Michigan.

Since 1986 Rice's career has been based in California. That year Rice joined the firm of Morrison and Foster, in San Francisco, as an associate attorney. In 1987 she accepted a position as special assistant to the associate vice chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles. From 1990 to 1995 Rice served as president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. After joining the Los Angeles office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1990, Rice became involved in several prominent civil rights cases, including the 1996 challenge to California Proposition 209, which amended the California state constitution to prohibit public institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity. Opponents of Proposition 209 argued that it would end affirmative action policies and contribute to increased inequality, but this argument did not succeed. Rice also played a part in the release from prison of Geronimo Pratt, a Black Panther convicted in 1972 of kidnapping and murder. Pratt served 27 years before his conviction was overturned in 1997 on the grounds that he had not received a fair trial. After an embarrassing corruption scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division in the late 1990s, the Police Commission appointed Rice to a blue-ribbon panel that investigated corruption charges and recommended reforms. Rice had made herself a vigorous career as an civil rights lawyer.

Rice's most important achievement, she explained in Pasadena Weekly, was getting three innocent men released from death row. Indeed, issues relating to imprisonment—including high incarceration rates, overcrowding, and denial of prisoners' rights—continue to inspire Rice's advocacy. She has spoken out about the dangers of intensifying racial violence in the country's prisons, and, during an episode of the PBS news program Now, suggested that abuse of prisoners is a significant problem in the United States. "Am I saying that our prisons are as bad as Abu Ghraib [in Iraq]? No," she said. "But do we have conditions that are illegal, unconstitutional and cruel and unusual? Yes."

Education reform is another subject about which Rice is passionate. In fact, she has called for nothing less than a complete dismantling and rebuilding of the nation's public schools. "Let's start a revolution here," she suggested during a seminar, reported in the Washington Post, to celebrate the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 that desegregated U.S. public schools. "We need to celebrate the achievement of Brown," Rice said, "but we have an obligation to change conditions we face today." Elaborating on this view to a reporter for USA Today, Rice added that just throwing money at the problem of poorly-performing schools is not enough to solve the problem. "Our system works for privileged kids of all races," she said, but it is a "devastating failure for poor kids of all races, including poor white children." Rice would like to see education reform begin with prenatal care, which would give every newborn the healthy environment necessary for early cognitive development. Schools, she believes, should focus on helping poor children move up the economic ladder. Indeed, building and protecting a healthy middle class is, for Rice, key to ensuring the viability of democratic society. Increased social mobility, she noted in Pasadena Weekly, is crucial because "the more prosperous an economic region is, the less friction, the less tension, the less crime, the less racial strife."

Since 1998 Rice has practiced law at English, Munger, and Rice, a firm that she co-founded and serves as partner. She has also devoted her energies to The Advancement Project, an organization she co-founded that is described on its Web site as a "democracy and justice action group." The Advancement Project works with local communities to obtain legal services, communication, technical support, and other needed services for poor communities. Among many issues that the organization is currently involved with is relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 and destroyed much of the city of New Orleans.

Rice is a distant cousin to Condoleezza Rice, who served as an advisor to President George H. W. Bush and was National Security Advisor, and then Secretary of State, for President George W. Bush. Constance Rice has told interviewers that she admires her cousin, but not her politics.

At a Glance …

Born on April 5, 1956, in Washington, DC. Education: Harvard University, BA, government, 1978; New York University, JD, 1984.

Career:

U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Detroit, MI, law clerk, 1984-86; Morrison and Foster, San Francisco, CA, associate attorney, 1986-87; University of California, Los Angeles, special assistant to the associate vice chancellor, 1987; Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, president, 1990-95; NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Los Angeles, western regional counsel, 1990-; English, Munger and Rice, Los Angeles, CA, co-founder and partner, 1998-; Advancement Project, co-founder and co-director.

Memberships:

NAACP.

Awards:

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Civil Rights Lawyer of the Year, 1999; California Law Business, named among California's top 10 most influential lawyers, 2000; Los Angeles County, John Anson Ford Humanitarian Award, 2002; Women Lawyers of Los Angeles, Ernestine Stahlhut Award, 2004.

Addresses:

Office—English, Munger and Rice, Suite 800, 1545 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90017.

Constance Rice has received numerous awards for her work promoting social reform. In 1999 she was named Civil Rights Lawyer of the Year by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. The following year she was named one of the Top 10 most influential lawyers in California by California Law Business. She received the John Anson Ford Humanitarian Award, Los Angeles County, in 2002 and the Women Lawyers of Los Angeles Ernestine Stahlhut Award in 2004. These accolades attest to her abilities, and in 2007 she had made no signal that she had even considered stopping her civic-minded work.

Sources

Periodicals

Pasadena Weekly, October 19, 2006.

USA Today, May 17, 2004.

Washington Post, May 16, 2004; November 11, 2006.

On-line

Advancement Project, www.advancementproject.org/index.html (February 12, 2007).

"Law Makers," History Makers,www.thehistorymakers.com (January 5, 2007).

"NOW: Politics & Economy, Income and Inequality; Constance Rice: Biography," PBS,www.pbs.org/now/politics/rice.html (January 5, 2007).

                                                                —E. M. Shostak

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