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Deborah J. Vagins
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Deborah J. Vagins is the Senior Legislative Counsel on civil rights issues for the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office. In this position, Vagins leads the office's civil rights advocacy efforts and develops pro-active strategies on pending federal legislation and executive branch actions concerning racial justice, employment discrimination, pay equity, voting rights, and disability rights. She works closely with key congressional staff and coalition partners to develop national campaigns advancing a federal civil rights agenda.


Recently, she has authored numerous articles and reports including: Liberty and Economic Justice for All; Pay Equity: Restoration and Improvement; Promises to Keep: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in 2006; The VRA Today: Why Americans Still Need the Voting Rights Act; Working in the Shadows: Ending Employment Discrimination for LGBT Americans, and Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of an Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law. Her reports have inspired town hall meetings across the country, and Vagins’ words and work have been featured by Washington Post, AP, CQ, NPR, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and others.


Prior to joining the ACLU in 2005, Vagins served as the acting deputy general counsel and senior attorney-advisor to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The general counsel's office provided recommendations to the White House, Congress and federal agencies to improve national civil rights policies and preserve constitutional protections. Vagins and the staff conducted investigations and briefings to develop national policies regarding discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, disability, and religion. She also researched and drafted comprehensive analyses on voting rights, Title VI enforcement, environmental justice, racial disparities in education, and affirmative action.


Before working at the commission, Vagins was an associate in the employment discrimination and civil rights practice group at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, where she litigated high-profile nationwide civil rights class actions. She represented more than 1.5 million women from Wal-Mart in the largest Title VII employment discrimination lass action in history. Prior to that, Vagins was an associate at Sidley & Austin in the civil, criminal and constitutional litigation practice group and founded the firm’s Committee for the Recruitment and Retention of Women. Earlier Vagins worked at EMILY’s List and clerked at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.


Vagins graduated magna cum laude from the Washington College of Law at American University, where she was an editor of the law review, and the recipient of the Gillett-Mussey scholarship for her contributions in the field of gender equity. She received her B.A. with distinction from Swarthmore College.

Entries by Deborah J. Vagins

Half a Century Later, Mad Men's Peggy Olson Is Still Waiting for Paycheck Fairness

(0) Comments | Posted March 26, 2015 | 1:57 PM

Despite the popularity of the show Mad Men, we are no longer living in the 1960s, but the current gender wage gap doesn't reflect that. Ongoing wage inequity should be a thing that's in the past.

The persistent pay gap exists, despite the undeniable progress that women have made...

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Millions Severed From the Body Politic

(0) Comments | Posted March 19, 2015 | 3:11 PM

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In this historic year, as we work to strengthen and update the law that protects voters of color at the polls, it is important to remember another ongoing...

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Reflections From the Bridge: Where the Stain of Slavery and Segregation Met a Young Man's Courage and a Preacher's Dream

(0) Comments | Posted March 11, 2015 | 10:52 AM

I returned home Sunday night from Selma, Alabama, where Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a bipartisan delegation of members of Congress, civil rights leaders, and over 80,000 marchers joined to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

On March 7, 1965,...

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We Must Honor the Legacy of Selma Foot Soldiers by Repairing What They Fought For

(1) Comments | Posted March 2, 2015 | 2:19 PM

In an important moment of bipartisanship, Congress unanimously passed a bill this month that honors the thousands of people who marched for voting rights 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama, with the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest civilian honor. This legislation was co-sponsored by 149 Republicans and 227...

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The Civil Rights Act at 50: A Conversation With Rep. John Conyers

(0) Comments | Posted July 2, 2014 | 5:07 PM

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Listening to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) speak is like having a real life history lesson. Mr. Conyers is the second-longest serving member of Congress, having been in office for nearly 50 years.  After participating in the March on Washington in 1963, he...

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The Most Conservative Principle in American Politics

(0) Comments | Posted June 25, 2014 | 1:17 PM

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"The right to vote is at the very foundation of our American system, and nothing must interfere with this very precious right."
- President Gerald Ford

"[T]he right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will...

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Equal Pay's Thrill of Victory and Agony of Defeat

(1) Comments | Posted April 10, 2014 | 12:05 PM

Four years ago, the Paycheck Fairness Act failed in the Senate. The bill, which would have helped close the pay gap between men and women by updating the Equal Pay Act of 1963, had majority support. But because a few senators blocked the legislation from consideration, the substance of...

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Equal Pay by the Numbers

(3) Comments | Posted April 4, 2014 | 12:06 PM

Over 50 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Senate is poised to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a much needed update to this law. While the Equal Pay Act was a historic piece of legislation that finally acknowledged that women were owed...

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Who's the Boss? Not Who You Think

(1) Comments | Posted March 13, 2014 | 3:36 PM

Meet Tony and Angela. Angela is a floor worker at a manufacturing plant and Tony is her shift supervisor. Tony's boss, who works offsite, decides whom to hire or fire at this particular plant. But Tony makes Angela's schedule, gives her time off, and decides whether she operates machinery or...

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The Time for Waiting is Gone

(0) Comments | Posted March 7, 2014 | 3:49 PM

Recently, I had a meeting with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). I was bringing some youth leaders to his office to discuss racial justice and education. When we arrived, he starting telling us his story. We were in awe. It was a history lesson from the source itself. He talked about...

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Lilly Ledbetter: Celebrating a Champion Still Fighting for Us

(0) Comments | Posted January 29, 2014 | 11:23 AM

Five years ago today, I was honored to stand with Lilly Ledbetter at the White House as President Obama made the legislation bearing her name his first major bill signed into law.

As I said back in 2009:

With the stoke of a pen -- actually several...
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Is Race Discrimination in School Discipline a Real Problem?

(11) Comments | Posted January 8, 2014 | 3:52 PM

The Department of Justice and Department of Education announced today what we have known to be true for a long time: Yes, race discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.

At an event with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, the Departments jointly announced the...

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50 Years Later, Fulfilling the Promise of Equal Pay

(0) Comments | Posted June 10, 2013 | 12:32 PM

My mom graduated from a prestigious, small women's college in the 1950s with dreams of graduate school -- a true accomplishment for a Jewish girl from a modest economic background. She wanted to go to a scholarly graduate school, which would have given her more options, but her college advisor...

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18 More Cents... in 50 Years

(5) Comments | Posted April 9, 2013 | 11:43 AM

Over the last five decades, women have broken many barriers in education, business and government. We need look no further than Congress to see the progress women have made: In 1963, Congress had only 14 women. In contrast, the new 113th Congress seated 97 women, the highest representation...

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Shelby, ITCA, and Congress' Role in Protecting Voting Rights

(0) Comments | Posted March 21, 2013 | 5:14 PM

Following a wave of voter suppression laws over the last few years, Texas passed a restrictive voter identification law, which unfairly burdened communities of color all across the state. The new law was rejected as discriminatory under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Arizona,...

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Who Really Won the Election? Democracy

(33) Comments | Posted November 9, 2012 | 8:43 AM

Who was the real winner on Tuesday? Democracy.

Overcoming a wave of voter suppression laws, misinformation, long lines, longer lies and Hurricane Sandy, millions of people still had their voices heard and ensured their votes counted.

Many of the voter suppression laws took different forms -- voter ID...

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On the First Anniversary of Wal-Mart v. Dukes: Stand Up or Be Trampled

(1) Comments | Posted June 20, 2012 | 12:05 PM

Over a decade ago, I had the great honor to be part of a team representing Betty Dukes, an employee at Wal-Mart who had received unfair treatment at her job and had decided to do something about it. Betty soon became the face of a large class of women who...

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The Paycheck Fairness Act: It's Time to Stop the Catch 22

(0) Comments | Posted June 4, 2012 | 12:48 PM

This post was co-written by Georgeanne Usova, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

Last week, Terri Kelly testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee about pay discrimination. In her nine year career as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Kelly was extremely successful—one of the best-performing reps in the nation. But despite...

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The State of Women's Rights: 2012 or 1963?

(28) Comments | Posted May 2, 2012 | 11:31 AM

Discussion of women's rights is back on the front pages these days. But it has been a curious discussion. Instead of talking about advancing new rights, as women are more likely than ever to be their families' breadwinners, in management positions in the workforce and hold...

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We Can't Wait for Fair Pay

(2) Comments | Posted April 16, 2012 | 12:32 PM

Would you know if the person sitting next to you at work was being paid significantly more than you to do the same job? If you suspected that might be the case, would you know what to do about it? You might start by simply asking the question. Unfortunately, there's...

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