Lani Guinier (1950-2022)

Guinier smiling, wearing a March on Washington card on shoulder
Lani Guinier on the 30th Anniversary March on Washington, August 28, 1993
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons under cc-by-sa-2.0 license

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Lani Guinier was a legal scholar, civil rights lawyer, author, and the first woman of color to obtain a position as a tenure-track professor at Harvard University in 1998. Born in New York City on April 19, 1950, Guinier was the daughter of Ewart Guinier, who served as the first chair of the Harvard Afro-American Studies department, and Eugenia Paprin Guinier, a Jewish American teacher and civil rights activist. Guinier graduated from Yale Law School in 1974.

After a clerkship with United States Court of Appeals judge Damon J. Keith, Guinier practiced with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) for four years. Guinier then served as a special assistant to Drew S. Days III, the first Black man to lead the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Guinier returned to the LDF to serve as the head of its Voting Rights program. During her years with the LDF, Guinier won 31 of the 32 cases she argued, and contributed significantly the 1982 legislative expansion of the Voting Rights Act.

Guinier joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1988, where she taught for 10 years. Her course on “Law and the Political Process” was voted one of the best classes at the university by students in 1996. In 1998, Guinier began teaching at Harvard Law School, where she was named the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law and received the Albert M. Sacks-Paul A. Freund Award for Teaching Excellence in 2002. She became a professor emerita in 2018.

Guinier was the author or co-author of five books, on topics ranging from voting rights, gender equality, and affirmative action, to education reform. She also authored numerous scholarly articles. Guinier was known for her research and advocacy regarding protection of minority interests in a democracy. She questioned whether the principle of “one person, one vote” was sufficient to protect minorities, and championed the idea that alternatives needed to be considered to give more weight to the interests of disadvantaged minorities. Among the suggestions made in her scholarship was the idea of cumulative voting, as used in some stockholder voting and in communities in the United States and elsewhere, in which each voter could use all available votes in a cumulative way, such as for a single candidate in an election of multiple city council members. Her aim was to achieve “meaningful participation” in government by minority groups.

The most publicized incident of Guinier’s career came in 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated her for the position of assistant attorney general for civil rights, then withdrew the nomination two months later following what was widely perceived as a politically-motivated media campaign. The “dis-appointment,” as Guinier referred to it, caused her to become a national figure. Guinier later wrote that the episode ultimately “offered me a larger platform, and even more, a better sense of what is necessary to produce the kinds of fundamental change that as a civil right lawyer I always believed we needed.”

Guinier was married to Nolan Bowie, an adjunct lecturer on communications and information policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Their son, Nikolas Bowie, joined the Harvard Law School faculty in 2018, where he, like his mother, has received the Albert M. Sacks-Paul A. Freund Award for Teaching Excellence.

Lani Guinier died on January 7, 2022 in an assisted living facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.  She was 71.