The Partnership for Public Service
Monday, December 13, 2010; 1:18 PM
As the son of Cuban immigrants, Alberto Ruisanchez was greatly influenced by his parents' stories about the lack of freedom under Fidel Castro, and at an early age came to understand the importance of civil liberties and the opportunities offered by this country.
Today, Ruisanchez is putting these lessons into practice by working as a trial attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, helping to protect the rights of persons with disabilities and previously working to combat discrimination in voting, housing, and places of public accommodation.
"Working for a government that protects the civil rights of its citizens is very meaningful to me," Ruisanchez said. "My parents always taught me about the rule of law and respecting civil liberties and civil rights. The U.S. government plays a beautiful role in this area that you don't see in many other countries."
During his time at the Justice Department, Ruisanchez has been involved in a number of legal cases that have made a real difference.
In one case, Ruisanchez filed suit against officials in Long County, Ga. charging they violated the Voting Rights Act by requiring 45 Hispanic residents to attend a hearing and prove their citizenship, even though there was no evidence calling their citizenship into question. A federal court entered a consent decree requiring the county to train election officials and poll workers on federal law, to maintain uniform procedures for responding to voter challenges, and to notify the challenged Hispanic voters that no evidence was presented to support the challenges against them.
"When an official doesn't act properly and people are disenfranchised on the basis of their race, that's when the Department of Justice needs to get involved," Ruisanchez said. "This is not only necessary to prevent differential treatment, but to make people aware that they can and should be participating in elections."
In another case, Ruisanchez filed suit charging that a housing authority in Blakely, Ga. maintained racially segregated public housing and harassed African-American tenants. The suit resulted in a consent decree requiring the housing authority to pay $252,500 in compensatory damages, to train employees on fair housing law, and to establish new admissions policies and procedures. The housing director also was removed from his job.
Eric Halprin, a Justice Department colleague, said Ruisanchez has a "passion for civil rights" and is "very focused on the mission of building an effective case."
"To be effective, you have to be able to develop relationships with the witnesses, but you also need to be a careful writer and researcher," Halprin said. "Alberto has this combination. He has the ability to develop the trust with the witnesses and present effectively in the courtroom."
After graduating from Georgetown University, Ruisanchez went to Harvard Law School where he graduated magna cum laude, served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review and then clerked for a federal appeals court judge.
Drawn to public service, Ruisanchez received a Heyman Fellowship that provided him with loan repayment assistance in return for a commitment to spend at least three years in the federal government and to act as a mentor to Harvard law students. The program was created by the late Samuel J. Heyman, the founder of the Partnership for Public Service.
The three year federal service commitment began in 2002 and has turned into a career for Ruisanchez, who said he draws "amazing satisfaction" helping to eliminate discriminatory barriers.
"It's the biggest guy fighting for the littlest guy," Ruisanchez said, referring to the Justice Department and its clients. "The Civil Rights Division has these remarkable resources to stop discriminatory behavior. You're doing it on behalf of someone who has been harmed who wouldn't be able to afford this representation."
While helping to fulfill the promise of equality that his parents lacked in Cuba, Ruisanchez said his sense of satisfaction is tempered by the reality of the work that lies ahead.
"We've made progress, but we still have a considerable amount to do," he said.
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.