Colorado Law is proud to announce Ryan P. Haygood (’01) as February’s Alum of the Month. One of the nation’s leading civil rights lawyers, Haygood became the third president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (the “Institute”) in 2015. In this role, he leverages his national expertise to advance the Institute’s cutting-edge work in empowering healthy urban communities in New Jersey by connecting urban residents to economic opportunity, ensuring an open and inclusive political process, and promoting public safety and criminal justice reform.
Prior to leading the Institute, Haygood served as the deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF) for more than a decade. At LDF, Haygood litigated some of the most important civil rights cases of our time. He helped to defend the constitutionality of a core provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, widely regarded as one of the nation’s greatest pieces of civil rights legislation, twice before the United States Supreme Court. Recently, he represented black community leaders in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, a devastating case in which the Supreme Court struck down the coverage provision of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional, leaving millions of voters of color vulnerable to voter discrimination.
Within days of the Shelby County decision, Texas implemented the strictest photo ID law in the nation, under which a voter could present a concealed-handgun license as a form of identification to vote at the polls, but not a student ID, voter registration card, or utility bill. Haygood led LDF’s successful legal challenge to Texas’s photo ID law, arguing during a two-week federal trial that the law was racially discriminatory and imposed substantial and unjustified burdens on voters of color in Texas. In the first ruling of its kind, the district court found that Texas’s photo ID law, which prevented more than 600,000 mostly black and Hispanic registered voters from voting, was intentionally racially discriminatory, violated the Voting Rights Act, and was an unconstitutional poll tax.
Last March, Haygood joined President Barack Obama and civil rights legends for the 50th anniversary reenactment of the iconic Bloody Sunday march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The march over this bridge in 1965 gave birth to the Voting Rights Act, which led to the election of the first black president 43 years after its passage.
Raised in Denver by a single mother, Haygood moved to New York City 15 years ago. In law school, he earned the prestigious Fried Frank/NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) Fellowship, awarded to just one entry-level lawyer annually. Haygood explained that he pursued a career in law because he was inspired by the ability of civil rights lawyers, such as LDF’s founder Justice Thurgood Marshall, to effect legal and social justice in our society. He credits the superior legal education he received at Colorado Law for preparing him to effectively use the rule of law to advocate for underrepresented groups.
A passionate advocate of civil rights, Haygood speaks and writes extensively on issues concerning race, law, civil rights, and democracy. He is frequently interviewed by media outlets such as MSNBC, CNN, National Public Radio, and the New York Times.
Outside of his work, Haygood is deeply invested in his community, mentoring hundreds of young people through Newark’s C.H.O.S.E.N., a teen youth group that he leads with his wife, Charity Haygood, a principal at a Newark, New Jersey, public school. Newark’s C.H.O.S.E.N. seeks to prepare young people for purpose-driven living by developing and supporting spiritual growth, character, educational excellence, leadership skills, community service, and financial responsibility. Haygood also works closely with other leaders in his community to ensure that government agencies, including law enforcement, are responsive to their needs.
Haygood stays connected to Colorado by serving on the board of trustees of his undergraduate alma mater, Colorado College, where he was nominated for the Rhodes Scholarship and earned academic and athletic All-American honors as a football player. He looks forward to visiting Boulder during his next visit to the Front Range.
What is your fondest memory at Colorado Law?
The moment I realized, in my second year of law school, that there was a place for me in the legal profession.
What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?
That while they matter (for a very limited period of time), your grades ultimately do not constrain your opportunity to use your law degree to advance social justice and equality.
What advice would you give to current students as they're preparing to graduate?
Whatever you do with your law degree, make sure that you are passionate about it, and that other people, particularly those whose lives are lived on the margins of our society, are better situated because you have that law degree.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
I didn’t grow up knowing any lawyers. But I did have a high school social studies teacher, Mr. Pettigen, who told me I could be one. His choice to get close to me made it possible for me to go law school. But for Mr. Pettigen’s choice to be proximate to me, I simply would not be a lawyer today.
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
Last year, I joined our nation’s first and twice-elected black president, Barack Obama, and civil rights legends in the 50th anniversary reenactment of the iconic Bloody Sunday march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. After reaching the top of the bridge, Georgia congressman and civil rights hero, John Lewis, led us in a moment of reflection and prayer, just as he did half a century earlier when he led the original march. During the prayer, I reflected on the way in which the march over this bridge, named after a Grand Wizard of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, gave birth to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Widely recognized as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement, the VRA, which I twice defended in the United States Supreme Court, led directly to the election of a black president within a generation of its passage. President Obama’s election led directly to the appointment of both the first black attorney general and the first black female attorney general.
Pictured: President Barack Obama, Ryan Haygood ('01), and First Lady Michelle Obama