Access for All
Mario Williams’ philosophy on justice at home was shaped abroad
Published in 2024 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
By Kenna Simmons on February 7, 2024
Right place, right time.
That’s how Mario Williams explains much of his career as a civil rights attorney. But there’s more to it. Right person, maybe?
It’s true that a chance encounter one Sunday morning led Williams—a Morehouse grad working on superfund issues as an intern with the EPA—into joining the Peace Corps. “I saw a woman struggling to carry some ice bags into her office and offered to help her,” he says. “She was the regional director of the Peace Corps. I had never even heard of the Peace Corps.” But with a little encouragement from his new acquaintance, Williams applied, was accepted and headed to Honduras to help provide clean water to residents. “I was the nonengineer,” he says.
For two and half years he helped construct downflow gravity water systems: “going way up into the mountains, finding a water source and mapping it out,” he says. “I would go with indigenous people living in rural Honduras—they would chop a pathway and we would map it and send it to the engineer in our group. Then we would use PVC to construct water tanks and get clean water to people.”
And that’s what led him from his planned path of environmental law to civil rights. (“Having potable water is a human right, not just an environmental concern,” he says.) After returning to the U.S. and starting law school at Lewis & Clark, he attended the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Chile. While there, as he tells it, he “just so happened” to make a connection that led him to spend seven years in Santiago, working as a human rights advocate and successfully petitioning the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of vulnerable people.
“I finished law school down there,” Williams says. “They allowed me to write two papers for my last credits.”
In 2010, back in Atlanta, he was asked to craft a request to the Inter-American Commission on behalf of dialysis patients at Grady Memorial Hospital whose health was threatened by the closure of an outpatient clinic. The Commission granted the petition, which Williams likens to “getting cert from the Supreme Court—it almost never happens.” As a result, the commission officially contacted the U.S. government and asked that it respond to the allegations and provide medical treatment.
Establishing a law firm with then-wife Julie Oinonen, Williams began working cases involving employment, prison and police misconduct. In Mejia-Mejia v. U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, he filed a successful lawsuit against the Trump administration on behalf of an immigrant mother seeking asylum who had been separated from her son under the policy that separated families at the border. Their reunion was covered by every national news outlet.
“One minute before the judge came out to hear the argument, the government caved and gave back the child,” Williams says. “In my opinion, they didn’t want a precedent set.”
Williams also filed a federal lawsuit against a rural Tennessee county for offering a 30-day reduction in jail sentences if inmates agreed to birth control procedures. “The guys had to get a vasectomy and the women had to put Nexplanon in their arms,” he says. “Basically a modern-day eugenics program.” The state legislature subsequently outlawed the practice.
He holds the distinction of being that rare self-described liberal to whom Tucker Carlson offered thanks for his work. Williams appeared on the far-right host’s Fox News show in 2017 after filing a lawsuit on behalf of one of the victims of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I’m trying to think my way through it. ‘What can we say? What’s going to happen?’” Williams says. But at the conclusion of the segment, Williams remembers, “Carlson said, ‘Good luck, I believe that people should be held accountable for that type of thing.’”
Williams says he’s been “fortunate and blessed to stumble upon some high-profile cases and win them,” but his tenacity is just as responsible for that success.
“I tell people, ‘I’m going to litigate this to its legal death,’” he says. “I’ve been rejected by the Supreme Court countless times. I still just filed a cert petition. I finally got to the last round, but still got denied. I litigated a case five years just for a woman to get her visitation rights back with her husband. … I litigated that up and down the 11th Circuit.”
Williams says he can be pretty conservative about what he takes on. His successful cases involving police violence have come, he says, when “the cops just should not have even been in the law enforcement agency.”
Despite the grimness of some of his cases, often for clients with no money and no recourse, Williams says he’s not jaded. He credits his mother, who told him, “Never let anyone, or anything, destroy your optimism.” Living in Central and South America also helped shape his outlook and give him a wider view of politics and suffering.
“Living abroad, and then travelling to Europe and Africa, just makes me appreciate home even more,” he says. “And that’s taking into consideration United States history, the history of African Americans.”
Being an expat also helped shape his philosophy of justice.
“For me, justice starts with providing every demographic real access to the basic necessities that we believe allow an individual to flourish in the world,” William says. “It’s a shame that any time you start talking about helping poor people, there’s a segment of our society that starts [calling you] a communist and a socialist because you’re saying, ‘A right to an education for a kid in Buckhead, who gets a ride to school in a Benz, is different from an impoverished person—regardless of color—because sometimes those people have to fend for their lives just to get to school.’
“So it’s trying to give people access, so an individual is not stuck where they’re born—but also saying, ‘You’ve got to mix this access with your own efforts.’”
In addition to his law practice, Williams developed a process, called “red flag analysis,” for opposition research in political campaigns that was used by, among others, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “It was more synthesizing information and then giving a red flag here, green thumbs-up for this particular thing,” he says. “It ended up being very successful.” He also met Lewis twice. “I obviously have a lot of respect for his history. And then, doing the research on him, it showed me even more about why he’s so respected.”
A few years back, Williams took the political plunge himself, serving as a city council member in Clarkston, in DeKalb County, from 2016 to 2020. And he’s currently honing his entrepreneurial skills as a partner in a CBD store.
Williams grew up in New Orleans, “so I was around a lot of art galleries,” he says. In his law office you’ll find framed photos of the five oldest courthouses in Georgia. “I paid a guy to go around Georgia and take them,” he says. “I just like what I see.” His own history of “stumbling into opportunities” merely confirms his access-to-justice work, he says. “When those opportunities came, I had access to them because I did have the education, I did have the travel experience. I had things I was able to take advantage of. When it comes to justice a lot of people just look at vindicating rights; I think it starts well before that.”
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