REBECCA McNEILL COUTO ’93
While I have settled far from Connecticut, WMS teachings remain inside of me, always accessible. The school’s fostering of my curiosity, openness, fairness, and resourcefulness has defined my life and career.
I started working for MALDEF in 2011, but I first became interested in the organization in late 1997 or early 1998. I was researching one of our country’s uglier histories—class- and race-based eugenics through forced sterilization. I had been shocked to learn about the long history of eugenics in this country, as well as the fact that it was so widespread in the late-1970s that Congress had to enact laws to protect Native American women. Forced, coerced, or even undisclosed, sterilization struck me as one of the most unfair violations one human could inflict on another. I spent hours of my own time in the medical school’s basement, looking at pamphlets advertising meetings of various eugenics societies , “scientific ” studies justifying eugenics, and the like. Since Stanford keeps MALDEF’s archives, I was told to look at the records for Madrigal v. Quilligan, a case from Los Angeles involving the forced sterilization of Mexican-American women. It was a case that MALDEF lost, but that nonetheless motivated the implementation of informed consent procedures .
My research about forced sterilizations in this country really shook me . I had thought that such atrocities happened in other countries, not here. But there were the papers, the hospital records, and the congressional bills, which included findings of fact. Learning that this kind of injustice was still going on in my lifetime motivated me to fight against similar injustices.
Today, my job is to fight for Latino civil rights in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. I’ve had my writing quoted by courts. I’ve taken the depositions of the Lieutenant-Governor of Colorado and of the former Chief of Police for the City of League City, Texas, among many others. I’ve defended depositions for day laborers, men terrified to have any contact with any official proceedings. I am the lead counsel on a whistleblower protection case in New Mexico.
One of my proudest moments so far has been to play a much smaller role in successfully defending a challenged congressional district in Dallas and Tarrant counties. The district was born of a compromise plan offered by the State of Texas in redistricting litigation here in San Antonio. A number of parties challenged it, calling it an illegal racial gerrymander. I was assigned to draft the paragraphs dealing with the district’s compactness. Compactness arguments generally focus on the challenged district. However, instead of defending the district in isolation of its surroundings, I wound up creating a chart comparing the overall compactness of the districts in Dallas and Tarrant counties in the enacted and compromise plans, showing that the overall compactness in those districts improved. Thus, the challenged district represented an overall improvement in the DFW Metroplex. The idea had come to me after about 20 minutes of my staring blankly at maps of the relevant plans, and the court mentioned chis point in its opinion.
In that brief yet effective chart, I pulled on my time at WMS, when I had to solve problems with my hands and in unconventional ways, thinking “outside the box.”