(BOSTON) – Last week, legislators, advocates, and Massachusetts residents attended a legislative briefing for H.1792/S.996, An Act to create access to justice, jointly filed in the House by Representatives Joan Meschino (D-Hull) and Adrian Madaro (D-East Boston) and in the Senate by Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett).

Civil rights legislation is meant to ensure fair treatment of all people under the law. However, laws and regulations often discriminate against vulnerable groups of people in negative ways, and these disparate impacts are difficult to remedy under the law. In large part, this is due to the ruling in the case Alexander v. Sandoval, which took away the standing of an individual to bring a claim in state court bestowed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

An Act to create access to justice would restore the right of an individual in Massachusetts to seek civil rights protections in Massachusetts courts against a state government agency when policies or procedures create a disparate impact. Specifically, the bill would eliminate the burden of proving that governmental programs or activities that have a disparate impact were motivated by discriminatory intent; make legal remedies accessible by permitting victims to file claims in state court, rather than federal court; and protect all vulnerable groups by prohibiting all discrimination. The bill is a priority for a broad coalition of justice groups and advocates, including those fighting for environmental justice, language access, prisoners’ rights, and equitable education.

“Our bill, An Act to create access to justice, empowers those who are discriminated against to take legal action in defense of their civil rights,” said Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull). “As a broad civil rights bill and with the 2050 Roadmap Bill being newly signed into law, this legislation will be crucial to continuing the fight for environmental justice.”

“While government actions and policies today are supposed to be neutral, the reality is that oftentimes in the real world they often affect various populations in very different, sometimes discriminatory, ways,” said Representative Adrian Madaro (D-East Boston) “This legislation will allow communities affected by these disparate impacts to access the legal system and seek remedies which ensure equity and environmental justice.”

“Some of the most pervasive injustices in our society come from actions and policies that appear neutral on their face, but perpetuate discrimination when applied,” said Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett). “We see these injustices play out all the time in diverse communities like those I represent– environmental inequities, educational disparities, and housing discrimination– with residents having little to no recourse for this injustice. That is why we need to pass this bill to enhance civil rights protections and expand access to justice to those who have been discriminated against, even if that discrimination was unintentional. If we truly wish to create a more equitable and just Commonwealth for all, we absolutely need to pass this legislation and empower our most vulnerable communities to fight for their rights in court.”

At the briefing, primary sponsors Representative Meschino, Representative Madaro and Senator DiDomenico introduced the legislation by tying it to the fight for environmental justice and urged fellow legislators to consider co-sponsoring the bill. Andrea Nyamekye from Neighbor to Neighbor and Sofia Owen from Alternatives for Community and Environment also provided additional context for and history behind the bill.

Panelists advocating for the passage of the bill shared specific experiences that underscore the need for this legislation. Noemy Rodriguez, Waterfront Initiative Organizer at GreenRoots, spoke about language access barriers that prevented her community’s meaningful participation in the process of public comment against the construction of a local substation. Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services Lizz Matos recounted injustices faced by people of color within the prison system. Among these is the use of classification scores, which determine the minimum security level permitted for an inmate, and are often based upon factors that are proxies for race such as the number of years of completed college. Staff Attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights Lauren Sampson shared examples of disparate impacts within the education system, including the over-representation of boys of color who receive special education services and their under-representation in advanced placement classes.

The bill is assigned to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and now waits for a hearing to be scheduled.