Kathy Wilde: Nearly 40 years of civil rights advocacy

Kathy Wilde standing on Broadway in Portland with traffic behind her smiling at the camera. After nearly 40 years of pioneering civil rights legal advocacy, Kathy Wilde is retiring. She’s served as Disability Rights Oregon’s Legal Director for the past 19 years.

Her storied legal career is remarkable for the astonishing breadth of her work.

She has been at the forefront of many of the most important civil rights battles of our day: from upholding the civil rights of gay people through historic litigation and advancing school desegregation in the South to safeguarding the rights of African-American voters and creating majority African American Congressional districts.

The final chapter of her civil rights advocacy reshaped disability rights law in our state. Kathy was pivotal in expanding community integration for people with disabilities, including people held needlessly at the state hospital.

She also worked to limit the time in which defendants with mental health conditions, who had been found unable to aid and assist in their own defense, could be held in jail while awaiting transfer to the state hospital for treatment.

Kathy advocated to increase access to meaningful employment opportunities, and make street crossings safer for people with physical disabilities throughout the entire state highway system.

Kathy wearing a blue top and smiling at talk show host Phil Donahue.

Kathy in 1986 appearing on the Phil Donahue show with client Michael Hardwick.

Q: You were involved in a historic gay rights case that went to the Supreme Court. Can you tell us about it? 

Within a few months of moving to Atlanta, I became the federal lawyer for Michael Hardwick in his challenge to the Georgia sodomy law.  Michael had been arrested in the bedroom of his own home having sex with his lover. We ultimately lost the case in a five to four Supreme Court decision (Bowers v. Hardwick). Justice Powell ultimately repudiated his vote. Seventeen years later, that Supreme Court decision was overturned in Lawrence v. Texas.

Q: You worked on a long-fought school desegregation case. Were you successful?

Working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, I took over a school desegregation case 18 years after it was filed. Ironically, the district was more segregated in 1988 than it had been when it was filed.

Though I was unable to force the district to redraw attendance barriers, I was able to show that long term African-American schools got teachers with fewer degrees and less experience, and fewer resources – leading to a shakeup in the teacher assignments the next year.

Q: Your work has spanned multiple dimensions of the struggle to advance civil rights. Did one area of advocacy present more challenges than the rest?

Voting rights work was some of the most fulfilling and challenging. I was able to create majority African-American districts where African-American people had never had any political voice at all – like rural west Tennessee, which never had an African-American House district.

Kathy wearing a blue shirt on the Phil Donahue show. The words "Kathy Wilde, ACLU Attorney" appear on screen.

As an ACLU Voting Rights Project Attorney, I worked closely with the U.S. Justice Department lawyers to force the creation of three majority black Congressional districts in Georgia and two in North Carolina after the 1992 census.

In May of this year – 25 years later – the Supreme Court invalidated those very two N.C. districts. The court found them unconstitutional as redrawn, because the legislature had packed an unnecessary number of African-American people into the district.   The result was the correct one, and reflects the fact that there is now cross-over voting among whites in parts of the Deep South.

Photo of Atlanta Magazine article on then State Representative Cynthia McKinney's decision to run for Georgia's new 11th district congressional seat. Kathy worked with Rep. McKinney when her Congressional seat was being taken away due to redistricting.

1992 Atlanta Magazine article on then Georgia State Representative Cynthia McKinney.

The work was also challenging because I was working in Georgia with an African-American Member of the House of Representatives – Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney – who was having her seat taken away with redistricting. I used her as a vehicle to introduce testimony on the effects of racial composition, and also to get access to the state’s computers to draw viable districts.

It was exhausting for all concerned — it took writing testimony at two in the morning and getting early morning calls from state house representative saying that she can’t help anymore, requiring me to rush to the Capitol to reassure her, but it was ultimately successful!

Q: Can you tell us about the work you did in Atlanta on racial discrimination in housing?A 1993 Daily Report article on voting rights challenge to Georgia’s judicial elections system. Kathy was the lead plaintiffs’ lawyer.

Race was the huge issue for civil rights lawyers in Atlanta. I took on housing discrimination cases, including emergency hearings where I was in court the same day the case came in, and also widespread class actions, involving multiple complexes owned by one management company in an entire corridor of the city.

A 1993 Fulton County Daily Report article with a black and white photo of Kathy, the lead plaintiffs' lawyer in a voting rights challenge to Georgia's judicial elections system.

Fulton County Daily Report article from September 1, 1993

Q: You’ve been on the front lines in some of the most important disability rights cases in Oregon. Can you share some of the highlights?

In 1998, shortly after moving to Portland, I was hired as Legal Director of what was then the Oregon Advocacy Center (now Disability Rights Oregon).  During my time there, I led a team of in-house lawyers and external co-counsel.

My first four cases were groundbreaking. Staley v. Kitzhaber (led by Jim Wrigley) created an entitlement to community-based developmental disability services for people who had spent years on a stagnant waiting list, with parents who feared that their adult children would be institutionalized if they died or became unable to provide support.

Miranda B. v. Kitzhaber came next. It was an Olmstead challenge to the unnecessary ongoing confinement of 68 individuals at Oregon State Hospital. Olmstead is the U.S. Supreme Court decision interpreting Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act to require that people with disabilities be allowed to live in the least restrictive environment.

Then came Oregon Advocacy Center v, Mink. Its decision requires the state hospital to accept people found unable to aid and assist in their criminal defense within seven days of that determination. That decision ended the practice of keeping defendants in jail for months awaiting mental health care, and established that the Oregon Advocacy Center could sue in court in its own right on behalf of the people it was charged to protect – people with disabilities.

Lastly, Stewmon v. Regal Cinemas challenged stadium riser seating in movie theaters as violating the rights of people with disabilities.  In these theaters, seating for people in wheelchairs was placed in the middle of the front row, or the ends of the third row: too close for them to see the whole screen without neck support and too close to hear the movie without distortion.

Three of those four cases wound up in the 9th Circuit. We won them all.

Kathy appearing on the Phil Donahue Show with client Michael Hardwick in 1986.

Q: For nearly 20 years, you’ve practiced as a disability rights attorney. How much progress has been made in this field during those decades? What is the next big battle for disability rights?

A lot of progress has been made moving people with disabilities out of institutions – from the closing of Dammasch State Hospital and Fairview Training Center, to building a new Oregon State Hospital, to litigation that has helped get people out of the hospital when they’re ready.

An important question is whether we, as a society, are willing to continue funding the community-based services and supports needed to keep people out of crisis requiring restrictive and expensive institutionalization. Community services rely upon funding and policies at both the state and federal levels. That’s what the AHCA fight is about. That’s what the state budget fight is about.

Q: In your time at Disability Rights Oregon, which cases are you proudest to have worked on?  

I led Disability Rights Oregon’s team on the landmark employment case Lane v. Brown, which we filed on behalf of Oregonians with intellectual and developmental disabilities who can and want to work in typical employment settings in the community.

The settlement agreement calls for 1,115 people in sheltered workshops to receive jobs in the community at competitive wages. In addition, 7,000 people will receive employment services that will afford them the opportunity to work in the community, including at least 4,900 youth ages 14 to 24 years old, who are exiting school.

I also led our litigation and successful settlement of Association of Centers for Independent Living v. Oregon Department of Transportation, which resulted in the largest commitment to an accessible transportation system in state history. The state promised to install missing curb ramps, fix substandard ones and upgrade crossing signals on the entire state highway system. These improvements will connect parts of communities that have been difficult or unsafe to access for Oregonians with physical disabilities, and enhance safety along highways.

I also took on the defense of group homes that local communities wanted to exclude. These homes for people with psychiatric and/or developmental disabilities were able to open due to my filing two federal lawsuits and writing numerous demand letters.

And I fought for enough services to keep people with severe disabilities, including a man who had a ventilator and had quadriplegia, in their homes.

Q: What advice do you have for attorneys just launching their careers?

The need is boundless. There are ways to support yourself while addressing that need. Get some experience. Get into court as quickly as possible, if you don’t you’ll never get there because you’ll be too afraid. If you don’t think you can make it work on your own, hook up with an organization that could use eager, energetic young minds.  The challenges are out there – and taking them on is worth it!



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