Demographics and the Fight for Equality

How Wendy Wang discovered civil rights law is more complex than it used to be

Published in 2010 Texas Rising Stars — April 2010

Wendy Wang had been an attorney for eight years before a pro bono case brought her to the nation’s attention.

Wang and fellow Bickel & Brewer attorney Michael Veeser agreed to try a voting rights case as part of the firm’s cutting-edge Storefront program, which offers high-quality legal services to low-income clients. Wang and Veeser represented Manuel Benavidez, a retired airline technician, who had sued the Dallas suburb of Irving for violating the federal Voting Rights Act. The city’s at-large voting system, Benavidez claimed, denied Hispanics the opportunity to have an effective vote. Irving is 40 percent Hispanic, but the city council is 100 percent Anglo.

Benavidez v. City of Irving was a complicated and technical lawsuit, taking Wang down legal paths she had never been. In the end, Wang and Veeser helped their client make federal law that some experts believe will help Hispanics fight discriminatory voting systems across the nation.

“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life having these counselors representing my convictions,” says Benavidez. “Whenever there was a break, I’d ask Wendy, ‘How are we doing?’ and she was able to put it in terms I could understand.”

At-large voting systems, where members of the city council are not elected from single-member districts but from the entire city, are not uncommon in Texas. In 1990, a federal judge ruled that Dallas’ 8-3 system, where three council members were elected at-large, violated the Voting Rights Act. In 2008, though, a similar system in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch was upheld.

The challenge facing Wang in the nine months that she worked on the case before trial was to find out why the Farmers Branch plaintiffs were not successful. The differences between the Farmers Branch and Irving cases, she says, were subtle. This was not a 1960s-style Voting Rights Act case, where the discrimination—poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses—was blatant. Different standards applied to Benavidez, requiring the attorneys to show that the at-large electoral system resulted in Irving’s Hispanic community members having fewer opportunities than other community members to vote and elect representatives of their choice. The questions were numerous: Farmers Branch had just 28,000 residents and Irving 212,000. How does that affect the law? Where did the Hispanic community live—in one part of the city or scattered throughout it? All of this was played out against the voting rights standard set by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which addresses the proportion of minority voting-age population.

“There was a lot of strategizing,” says Wang. “What did we need to do? How did we need to do it? What elements do we have to prove?”

They attended city council meetings and drove around Irving, especially heavily Hispanic south Irving, to see the parts of town most closely involved in the dispute. It also meant working with expert witnesses, who could explain that it was the at-large system, and not something else, that prevented Hispanics from getting elected to the council.

And the experts, says Wang, who live in a world of demographic and census patterns and the specific vocabulary that applies to it, were a challenge themselves. “The first phone call I had from them,” she says with a laugh, “I had no idea what they were saying.”

Yet the work ethic and the skills required to deal with this sort of case—a bench trial about a complicated subject that could potentially affect millions of people—are Wang’s strengths, says William A. Brewer III, the firm’s co-founder and the partner who oversaw this Storefront project.

“She is talented, obviously,” he says. “But she is also industrious and her big standout is perseverance. She sticks to the task until she gets it done.”

Wang, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who live in the Dallas area, was not supposed to be a lawyer. She attended Washington University in St. Louis with the intention of going to medical school. In her senior year, she was awarded a one-year Fulbright Scholarship to teach English in South Korea. This led to work researching human rights issues and the chance to help edit an international human rights newsletter. When she returned to the U.S., she entered the University of Texas School of Law and graduated in 2001.

“Doing something like this case and working for the Storefront allows me to stretch myself,” she says. “I had no hesitation in joining the case. It was a chance to learn, to do something so I won’t get complacent. It was a great challenge.”

And a successful one. The Irving City Council decided in September to settle the case rather than appeal, with the council voting 6-3 to agree to a 6-2-1 voting system—six members elected from single-member districts, two elected at-large and the mayor elected city-wide. The council also agreed to pay Benavidez’s $200,000 legal fees.

And Wang and Veeser are not done. Benavidez has filed a similar federal lawsuit against the Irving school district, which also has an at-large system. As of press time, the school board has declined to settle, despite the precedent in the city case and even though the district is more Hispanic-concentrated than was the city (as the district does not include much of the more affluent and less Hispanic north). Its enrollment is 68 percent Hispanic, but again, the board is all Anglo.

“The thing that I learned from this case was how little I knew about what was going on not that far from me,” says Wang. “I had no idea this was happening. Then I got to see the situation for myself. Had we not been involved, I wouldn’t have been able to shine my headlights on that.”

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