Jill Habig is bringing justice to the law by closing the gap between the values expressed in our laws and the lived reality of our most underserved communities.
The New Idea
All citizens enjoy legal rights to fair wages, safe housing, non-discrimination, an environment free of pollution, and beyond. And yet these formal rights rarely translate into substantive rights because they are rarely enforced – or when they are, they are done so inequitably. Via the Public Rights Project, Jill is creating new legal networks and best practices that motivate and specifically enable local governments to proactively ensure that rights to economic justice, environmental justice, and racial and gender justice are enforced.
The central aim of Jill’s work is expanding public-interest “affirmative litigation” across the United States, especially at the city level. This requires transforming civil rights enforcement into something that happens proactively in every community across the country, powered by local offices who understand their power and know how to use it to improve the lives of everyday citizens. To this end, Jill is building a fellowship network of civil servants working out of district attorneys’ offices who are legally empowered to enforce civil rights but have been historically discouraged from so doing by a lack of knowledge about how to proceed or a lack of impetus to do so. She works with them to create an affirmative litigation “playbook” that equips them to serve their communities in new and more effective ways. To pressure government offices to incorporate this more proactive rights-enforcing approach, she works with advocates and activists to create demand for this specific change.
Her network enables states, cities, and smaller municipalities to pursue enforcement activities that have traditionally been pursued by the federal government or not at all, providing structures that protect communities regardless of federal priorities and activating a “standing army” with the power and resources to litigate cases that other advocates can’t touch due to legal limitations and resource constraints. Her model also allows different cities and offices to learn from and support each other in pursuing legal action against common problems ranging from lead poisoning to COVID-related eviction moratoriums to protecting the Post Office, supporting workers in the gig economy, and preserving abortion rights post-Roe.
Ultimately Jill is transforming our expectations of government and rebuilding trust in local institutions in particular by equipping them with tools to meaningfully address civil rights issues that would otherwise go ignored. She envisions and creates a world where rampant unaddressed civil rights violations are no longer a fact of everyday life but are rather rebutted and guarded against by talented and skilled civil servants who leverage the law to protect the most vulnerable rather than preserve the (inequitable) status quo.
When it comes to economic, gender, racial and environmental justice, there is a large gap between the promise of our laws and people’s lived experiences. 54% of Americans are victims of illegal corporate abuse, including wage theft, predatory lending, unsafe housing, and corporate pollution. Extensive research has also documented the prevalence of discrimination in housing, employment, and policing.
Much of this gap stems from the fact that across the country, laws guaranteeing our rights in the workplace, the marketplace and the community are largely not enforced and, when they are, are not enforced equitably. Harms caused by under-enforcement of legal rights include direct harm to families’ and communities’ wealth, health, and life opportunities, damage to the economy, persistent racial wealth gaps, and erosion of trust in the rule of law.
Governments at the federal, state, and local level have authority to address these wrongs, but this authority is vastly underutilized. At the state and local level, the offices with legal authority largely lack the knowledge, capacity, tools, and motivation to lead effective, equitable enforcement that closes the gap. These smaller offices have traditionally relied on the federal government to do the bulk of enforcement, which waxes and wanes substantially based on the priorities of each presidential administration. States and cities frequently don’t have the personnel with training or expertise on issues like wage theft or consumer fraud, and they get stuck in the self-perpetuating inertia of not pursuing these kinds of cases because they’ve never done them before.
Additionally, when government offices do engage in enforcement on civil rights and economic justice issues, the most common approach to public enforcement is fundamentally flawed and furthers institutional racism. Typically, government law offices pursue legal cases based on receiving a complaint from a resident – a resident who has the trust, knowledge, and resources to avail themselves of a government law office – or based on hearing about an issue in the media. These modes of case generation are fundamentally reactive and beholden to “squeaky wheels,” while offices remain inaccessible to the most vulnerable populations due to community mistrust of government institutions and lack of awareness surrounding individual rights. If no one knows a DA’s office could stop their employer from stealing their wages, they’re never going to complain about that problem to the DA, thus ensuring staff never have a complaint to trigger an investigation.
Public Rights Project (PRP) was born of Jill’s experience leading affirmative litigation in the San Francisco local government and with the Attorney General’s office in California. She saw the potential for affirmative litigation to become an impactful model for ensuring civil rights across communities if other offices could be supported with a playbook, incentives to resource the work, and a network of support. So, she and her team set out to do just that: simultaneously piloting and refining this litigation approach in the Bay Area while documenting it and building the field of work across the United States.
First, PRP releases numerous guides and playbooks as resources for local and state offices, including guides for fighting corporate abuse, helping local governments to promote safe and just communities, and a guide on “the power and potential” of state AGs in the fight to end police brutality. These playbooks serve as accessible resources for local and state offices to develop an arsenal of knowledge that can help them shift the culture of their offices towards one that represents and defends timely civil rights issues and areas of public concern.
To build the interpersonal network of lawyers leading affirmative litigation, Public Rights Project has two fellowship programs, one for early-career professionals who want to join state, local, or tribal governments as affirmative litigation and civil rights enforcement specialists, and one for mid-career professionals who want to pivot to or enhance their skills in civil rights enforcement work. Jill’s team provides training and technical support to those fellows to equip them with the tools and skills they need to proactively enforce civil rights laws. Currently, PRP has worked with 108 fellows in 24 states. The government offices where these fellows work include state-level offices, cities of all sizes, and tribal governments. They have nearly doubled their number of fellows in the past three years and are launching a new fellowship in collaboration with the organization Justice Catalyst.
These fellows and the government offices in which they work are members of the only network of its kind, which connects government legal offices (like those of district attorneys and attorneys general) across geographies, levels of government, and issue areas, to unite in focusing on civil rights enforcement. This allows offices to learn from each other, share techniques, avoid “reinventing the wheel,” and powerfully support each other. PRP has already seen collaborative successes, such as when the Chicago District Attorney’s office was able to file an amicus brief supporting Massachusetts’ COVID-19-related eviction moratorium, or when thirty-two local, state, and tribal governments connected through Public Rights Project to work together to challenge changes to the post office that were brought about by the Trump administration. The network is also well-positioned to take on and support each other in legal challenges to the employment practices of nationwide “gig economy” companies like Handy and Instacart. Many civil rights issues, from lead paint to workers’ rights, persist across municipal boundaries and can, and are being more effectively addressed using this networked strategy.
Jill’s network is reaching more and more offices by connecting with community advocates and activists, working at local levels to inform and engage them on the question of what these law offices can do for their community, so that they in turn exert pressure on their local officials to adopt proactive civil rights enforcement models. In many places, the attorneys heading these offices are elected, and a commitment to civil rights enforcement equity is a compelling part of a platform. Jill’s team builds and maintains relationships between these local groups and their local DA’s and AG’s offices, so that enforcement strategies are informed by community priorities and needs. For example, Jill’s team interviewed workers at Handy and Instacart to assemble real information on how those companies were violating their rights and not meeting their needs. This information was in turn converted into legal action. In a time where “defunding the police” is on the table for debate, Public Rights Project represents a real way for local government offices to pivot their resources from criminal justice enforcement policies that drain and harm communities. Instead, these resources can go towards proactive, equitable civil rights enforcement that makes communities stronger and healthier by closing equity gaps and promoting rights.
Currently, Public Rights Project has 311 partner government offices and community organizations. In recent years, they have expanded their work to tackle crucial issues of abortion access, protecting abortion rights in Michigan and elsewhere, preserving access for millions of people. In a political climate where the right to vote with tools like mail-in ballots is increasingly contentious and in many cases being restricted by conservative governments, Jill’s team and her fellows have acted in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to preserve voting rights, particularly for elderly and disabled individuals and others who may not be able to vote in person. Across their fights for abortion rights, voting rights, workers’ rights, and other areas of need, Public Rights Project estimates it has preserved civil rights for 23 million Americans this year, including voting access for ten million people and abortion access for 6.5 million.
Jill’s mother was the first woman elected to the school board in their small Midwestern town, and Jill watched her persistence result in meaningful change for the district. In Jill’s first year of law school, she helped found the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project, a fellowship that paired Yale law students with city attorneys in San Francisco to help scale up impact litigation. The program, founded in 2007, has been able to sustainably grow its impact using an innovative business model that helps state and local governments self-sustain high-quality enforcement teams by using revenue from successful cases to fund permanent staff. Through this work, she saw the difficulty other cities had in building similar programs from scratch, because there was no plan or playbook for doing so.
In 2015, working as part of the California Department of Justice, Jill led the creation and launch of the Attorney General’s Bureau of Children’s Justice and oversaw its work defending children’s rights in the child welfare, education, and juvenile justice systems. Jill and her team built this new unit to bring cases that had not been brought before, on issues like racial bias in school policing. Each time they wanted to innovate, Jill felt as if they were “reinventing the wheel” as they created partnerships and marshalled resources to make change. Her “wish lists” and keen sense of what was needed to enable more cities to do this type of work were the seeds of Public Rights Project.