Congratulations Professor Suzette Malveaux! Professor Malveaux has been named the 2024 recipient of the American Bar Foundation (ABF) Fellow’s Outstanding Service Award. This highly esteemed honor is granted to a Fellow who has, in his or her professional career, “adhered for more than thirty years to the highest principles and traditions of the legal profession and to the service of the public.” The ABF is the “world’s leading research institute for the empirical and interdisciplinary study of law.” The organization is comprised of judges, lawyers and legal scholars whose mission is “to expand knowledge and advance justice through innovative, interdisciplinary, and rigorous empirical research on law, legal processes, and legal institutions.”
“I am incredibly honored to receive this lifetime achievement award. I’m so grateful to belong to a community committed to studying and using the law for the public good. Especially now, it’s important to support each other and work together to defend democracy,” shared Malveaux. She will receive the award at the upcoming American Bar Association gala in Louisville, Kentucky.
Malveaux—who currently serves as Colorado Law’s Moses Lasky Professor of Law and Director of the Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law— began her civil rights career long before she set foot in Boulder a half dozen years ago as a new member of the University of Colorado Law faculty. With such a distinguished career, it may be surprising for some to learn that Malveaux was not always certain that her path was that of a lawyer and legal scholar.
Life Before Law School
“I really struggled with whether or not to attend law school,” Malveaux admitted. “I had applied to law school and was headed to Yale, when I decided to defer for a year,” Malveaux explained. “I knew that social justice and civil rights were fundamental to my core, but I wasn’t sure if law was the right route.”
Indeed, social justice and civil rights have been a part of Malveaux's life since she was born and are deeply embedded in her family’s-- and especially her parents’-- values. Malveaux recalls her childhood home being filled with books about Black leaders like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Charles Drew, Rosa Parks and other iconic figures. “They [my parents] made sure they were constantly supplementing our public education with Black history. Through example, they modeled courage and compassion that really stuck with me.”
Her parents’ emphasis on education and serving underserved populations guided Malveaux. “My parents were very influential as my anchors and inspiration,” Malveaux shared. “My mom was a Head Start and first grade teacher, and my dad worked at Howard [University] as a researcher, doctor and medical school dean for decades.” Her father’s “groundbreaking research on health care disparities among African Americans” and her mother’s unwavering dedication to early childhood education inspired Malveaux to take a similar path in the law.
Malveaux graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and took those family values with her when she left the historic Cambridge campus. In fact, it was those three years post-graduation that proved to be essential in shaping the direction of her legal career.
During Malveaux’s first-year deferral from law school she worked as the primary researcher on a history of civil rights lawyers and on Voices of Freedom—an oral history of the civil rights movement and companion book to the award-winning “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series. “I absolutely loved it and was inspired by the work of the civil rights community.”
Malveaux deferred law school a second year, this time volunteering for an NGO in Zimbabwe, where she researched and wrote about the status of African women ten years after the country’s independence. Upon her return to the U.S., she deferred law school a third year, directing a community foundation that funded and trained youth leaders in public interest initiatives.
These experiences all played a critical role in shaping Malveaux’s eventual decision to attend law school, at NYU as a Root-Tilden Scholar, a program geared toward outstanding students committed to pursuing public service interest.
Law School and Beyond
“I knew I wanted to be able to immediately go into civil rights work for a public interest organization, so I decided to go to NYU,” Malveaux shared. “The Root program enabled me to have the financial support, leadership training, and community of people who wanted to do public interest work and hit the ground running right after graduation.”
And hit the ground running was exactly what she did. Immediately following law school, she clerked for the Honorable Robert. L. Carter (who argued the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision with Justice Thurgood Marshall). She then practiced law in DC as a civil rights lawyer and class action specialist. Some of Malveaux’s proudest accomplishments as a litigator include appearing before the United States Supreme Court in a case challenging forced arbitration, and representing over 1.5 million women against Wal-Mart in the largest employment discrimination class action to date.
But most rewarding for Malveaux was serving for six years as pro bono counsel on behalf of more than 130 survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre in a ground-breaking constitutional lawsuit against the city of Tulsa. As part of a national “dream team” of lawyers, scholars and community organizers, Malveaux represented clients over 100 years old for violation of their constitutional rights in “one of the worst racial massacres in U.S. history.”
The plaintiffs sought restitution for the government’s participation in the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in the U.S. federal courts, international courts and Congress. While the courts ultimately dismissed the case because of the two-year statute of limitations, she and leading counsel travelled across the country telling the story of the Tulsa race massacre and the need for justice. Malveaux has argued for tolling, or suspending, the case’s statute of limitations and has published the seminal article on the subject.
“Even though we didn’t win the case, we made sure our clients’ voices were heard. That was really important,” Malveaux shared. “They [our clients] felt they mattered. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.”
So rewarding, it was the one case Malveaux brought with her when she transitioned from legal practice to academia, teaching primarily in the areas of Civil Procedure, Complex Litigation, Employment Discrimination, Civil Rights, and Constitutional Law for the last two decades. Her scholarship expresses her passion for access to justice by exploring the intersection of civil rights enforcement and civil procedure.
Her work centers on procedural justice as an undertheorized civil rights issue. Malveaux wants her scholarship to be impactful and accessible, and indeed it is. Her law review articles have been cited by numerous courts, entered into the Congressional record, and won national recognition. She has presented her ideas not only in the United States, but in India, Australia and South Africa.
While Malveaux enjoyed her time in the litigation trenches, she appreciates having the time to be more thoughtful as a professor and scholar.
“I can give more consideration to the theoretical and historical issues that are behind the legal issues. There is an intellectual satisfaction that you get as an academic.” Her students also appreciate her real-world experience and expertise. Going forward, Malveaux is eager to continue to lean into her research and writing, especially as it pertains to procedural protection in the civil court system.
Carrying It Forward
“Our democracy is being attacked on so many different levels, now is the time [for this work].” Malveaux shared. “We need people to be writing and voicing a different approach. And a civil way of having this kind of discourse is extremely important.”
Through it all, Malveaux's parents and their legacy still act as her anchor. Malveaux cites her grandmother, who grew up in segregated Louisiana, as one of her role models.
“She was ahead of her time,” Malveaux remarks of her grandmother, Inez Malveaux.
As the eldest of five children, she was expected to work the farm and take care of her younger siblings rather than finish high school. She advocated for a different path and ultimately graduated from a historically Black college and went on to become a math and science teacher.
“A Black woman who wanted to do these things back then when that was not really the plan for her is incredibly inspiring. She was very strong willed.” Malveaux jokes that her similar temperament earned her the nickname “Little Inez” growing up.
On a much broader scale, though, Malveaux shared that her inspiration comes from the entire collective of those who worked to fight slavery, segregation and discrimination over time. Their resilience and example has inspired her throughout her career as a lawyer, professor and scholar. “I'm so proud to be part of that legacy, and I feel this tremendous obligation and honor to carry that forward.”
Congratulations again, Professor Malveaux, on this well-deserved recognition. We look forward to the next chapter in your story, and the continued impact your legal scholarship and teaching will have on the field in the years to come.