Scholars, lawyers, advocates and leaders from across the country convened on April 14, 2023 for the University of Colorado Law School’s 31st Annual Ira C. Rothgerber Jr. Conference: State of Resistance: The Role of States in the Midst of Federal Court Crisis.
This year’s conference grappled with the role of the states in responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s modern jurisprudence. With the disruption of long-standing rights, controversial rulings and procedures, and an increase in skepticism about the Court’s legitimacy, speakers examined the role of state and tribal courts, state constitutions, and state law in responding to growing threats to democracy. This interdisciplinary conference benefitted from a range of perspectives and experiences. The speakers included: doctrinal & clinical law professors, a mathematics professor, private practitioners and non-profit lawyers, activists, and policy makers.
Colorado Law’s Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law hosted the Rothgerber Conference. The Center’s director, Moses Lasky Professor of Law Suzette Malveaux, gave opening remarks. Professor Malveaux set the stage, asking what role states should play in the face of waning confidence in the federal, judicial, and political branches. She flagged federalism, separation of powers and pre-emption as issues to look out for as states take opposing stances on what democracy looks like. Dean Lolita Buckner Inniss also kicked off the conference, explaining how democratic norms are under attack and urging attendees to be active participants in our collective future.
Carolyn Shapiro, professor and Co-Director for the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States at Chicago-Kent College of Law, gave the keynote address. Professor Shapiro discussed the importance of a republican form of government and how federalism enhances liberty for everyone. She explained how federalism requires a diverse and responsive government, citizen involvement, and the promotion of democracy.
“We are experiencing not just the threat of, but actual, democratic erosion,” Professor Shapiro said. She criticized the Supreme Court for failing to protect democracy and argued that the Court’s selection process, composition, and jurisprudence illustrate the need for court reform.
Three panels picked up the conversation from there, examining the growing role of states in the context of civil rights, voting rights, and reproductive rights.
The first panel, “State Responsibility in the Face of Civil Rights Regression,” explored the current state of civil rights, with a focus on how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities, in particular, have been impacted. Panelists highlighted how Tribal federal litigation over the protection of one civil liberty has a domino effect on other liberties. Panelists also highlighted the importance of diversity in the judiciary, including the recent confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The second panel, “The Gutting of the Voting Rights Act and Its Impact on Judicial Legitimacy,” explored how the Supreme Court has eroded voting rights. The panelists discussed how many states, in response, are protecting the right to vote by enacting their own voting rights acts to protect voters.
The third panel, “The Battle Over Abortion at the State Level,” explored the chaos of state abortion law in a post-Roe world. Panelists discussed the impact of this legal uncertainty on abortion providers, patients, and states themselves. Added to the mix were Colorado’s own laws protecting abortion access, three of which were signed into law earlier that day.
Panelists and attendees connected with each other at the post-conference reception, reflecting on the issues raised. Casey Nelson, a second-year student and executive editor of the University of Colorado Law Review, noted, “This year's Rothgerber Conference had such an excellent lineup. Hearing the professors and practitioners speak on what they're most passionate about was inspiring. It was especially interesting to hear their perspectives on current legal news, sometimes right as it was breaking.”
Jenn Chalifoux-Gene, a second-year student and co-president of the Colorado Law chapter of If/When/How, also shared her thoughts.
“This year’s Rothgerber Conference was energizing for me! It’s been tempting to fall into despair about the Supreme Court, especially after Dobbs,” she said. “The Conference helped me feel more hopeful about our ability to protect rights in the states.”
Many of the participants will be publishing their remarks and articles in a special symposium issue in the University of Colorado Law Review.
A full recording of the conference is available on YouTube.
Biographies of all panel participants can be found here in the event's program.