Remembering Thomas K. Gilhool

Thomas K. Gilhool_ 1938-2020
Thomas K. Gilhool, 1938-2020
We are sad to share that Thomas K. Gilhool, an inspiration throughout our history, died on August 22, 2020 at the age of 81. Tom helped bring about generational advances in the rights of people with disabilities nationwide, winning the first case establishing the right to public education and championing the movement for services based in the community, closing large segregated institutions across the country. He was also a founding figure in civil legal aid, and he used the law throughout his life to give voice to all those who are underrepresented and ignored in public policy. Tom led our organization as Chief Council for more than 25 years, beginning in 1975. His contributions and his example are extraordinary, and we will miss him deeply. 

Those who knew Tom recall his creativity, passionate spirit, perseverance, driving energy, and leadership. He was a force of nature. When he found a path forward for advancing justice, he inspired others to follow and gave them the tools and knowledge to do so. With skill and determination, Tom took on entrenched forms of discrimination and made a profound difference.

In an oral history of his work compiled by Temple University, Tom urged those who followed him in the work of advancing equality to remain vigilant and persistent. "The largest trap for the Disability Movement," he said, "for any movement, for anyone with a need and a deep wish to see the equality commitments of the United States recognized and more fully realized, is summed up in one of two phrases: 'that's the best we can do,' or 'it made no sense to try, because we wouldn't have gotten anything.'"

Each of us should hope to be able to live up to his charge. All of us at the Law Center send our sincere condolences to Tom's wife Gillian, his children Bridget and Nicholas, his brother Bob and his sister Beth, and all of his family and friends.

We have shared a chronicle of Tom's extraordinary career on our website. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an obituary on August 28.

Tom Gilhool at our 50th Anniversary Celebration
Tom at our 50th Anniversary Celebration

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We're going to court to protect Pennsylvanians' right to vote

A voter using a ballot drop box 
We are dedicated to upholding the rights of Pennsylvania voters to vote safely, and have their votes count, especially during the pandemic. We're representing voters intervening in two lawsuits that could affect Pennsylvania election law: a federal lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign and a state lawsuit filed by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are seeking to prevent the use of secure drop boxes that allow voters to hand-deliver their ballots, baselessly claiming that vote-by-mail systems facilitate voter fraud. COVID-19 has created a critical need for such voting mechanisms, especially for people of color who have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Banning ballot drop boxes would force many voters to choose between their health and their vote while reinforcing voter suppression.   
In the federal case filed by the Trump campaign, we are representing intervenors Common Cause PA, the League of Women Voters of PA, the NAACP PA State Conference, and three Allegheny County voters; and we are joined by co-counsel from the ACLU, the ACLU of PA, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and WilmerHale. In a recent filing, the Trump campaign failed to uncover any evidence linking mail-in ballots to voter fraud. On August 23, District Court Judge Nicholas Ranjan issued a stay in the case until October 5, halting the Trump campaign's efforts while state courts consider these issues of state election law. 
"We look forward to a resolution of these important election issues in state court," said Legal Director Mimi McKenzie. "Mail-in voting is used by millions of voters nationwide in every election, and as we take on COVID-19, it is more important than ever. We'll continue to fight for voters against efforts like this lawsuit, which seek to undermine this vital part of our democracy."
Judge Rangan's ruling places the question of drop boxes and other tools for mail-in voting in state court, in a case filed by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Their lawsuit seeks clarification on whether drop boxes are permissible under Pennsylvania state law and seeks to extend the deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots to count ballots sent by Election Day. This deadline change, which we have long sought, would give voters certainty that their vote will count. We are seeking to ensure that voters are heard in this case as well. On August 10, we filed a petition to intervene representing the Black Political Empowerment Project, Common Cause PA, the League of Women Voters PA, Make the Road PA, and three voters, joined by the same team of co-counsel. This petition to intervene is pending. 

An initiative of the Jeffrey Golan & Frances Vilella-VĂ©lez Voting Justice Project.
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Law Center in the News: Stemming the tide of gun violence in Philadelphia

A handgun with bullets
Gun violence is an epidemic. Though this crisis may seem intractable, public health organizations have identified some promising evidence-based solutions.
We are working on multiple fronts to enact these solutions and take on gun violence in Pennsylvania. In an August 14 column for the Legal Intelligencer, our Executive Director Jennifer Clarke outlined some of the measures we and our partners are using to diminish gun violence. One strategy is oriented around changing the way in which courts interpret the state preemption law, which has been used to prevent Philadelphia from enacting many gun safety measures. However, as Clarke points out in her column, any change in the interpretation of the preemption law must be accompanied by statewide legislation that keeps guns out of the hands of those who would harm themselves or others-requiring people to obtain a permit to purchase firearms.
"We can't let people confuse us or deter us from acting by telling us that there is no solution," she wrote. "The truth is, as our public health experts tell us, there are measures that can work. We have to try."
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Attention Philadelphia parents: Do you have a student with an Individualized Education Program?

Student writing on a piece of paper
The Public Interest Law Center would like to learn more about how the School District of Philadelphia is doing conducting evaluations/reevaluations and providing related services during school building closures and virtual instruction.

We would like to speak with you to gain a better understanding of your experience getting evaluations/revaluations and related services such as occupational therapy and speech therapy.

If you would be willing to speak with someone from the Law Center, please call (267) 546-1314 or email

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New proposal could lead to a charter school takeover of Chester Upland SD. We're helping parents fight back.

Chester Upland parents demostrate for public schools
Chester Upland parents demonstrate for public schools
In our February newsletter, we discussed our resistance to a proposal that could convert all of Chester Upland School District's K-8 schools into charter schools, possibly overseen by the for-profit management organization CSMI, which operates the District's current largest charter school. In May 2020, Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge Barry Dozor approved a plan that includes a process for charter school operators to submit proposals for management of either select schools or the entire district. Our clients, parents in the district and a community organization, feel that this plan does not take into account the academic underperformance on standardized tests from students in Chester Community Charter School when compared to district schools, or whether schools or a district run by charter operators would properly serve students with disabilities.
For-profit charter schools' take-over of Chester Upland School District is not a foregone conclusion. Last December, we began partnering with the Education Law Center to intervene in the case, representing parents and the Delaware County Advocacy & Resource Organization, a membership-based organization that advocates for people with developmental disabilities. Our support for this case is ongoing, and we hope to successfully ensure that parents have a voice in the future of their public schools and can push back against privatization. Read more about the plan and the threat it poses for the district in this deep-dive August 21 article for the Washington Post.  
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Thank you to our summer interns!

Our summer interns_ virtual sending-off party
Our summer interns' virtual sending-off party
In a summer like no other, our summer interns were a tremendous help, working remotely with diligence to support our work in dozens of ways. We are all so grateful to our stellar 2020 summer interns: legal interns Camelia Metwally (Michigan), Abigail Rosenfeld (Boston College), Jacob Elkin (Columbia), Blanche Helbling (Penn), Jenny Samuels (Harvard), and Ellen Heiman (Penn); and undergraduate interns Rebecca Qiu (Brown) and Allie Salazar (Yale). Thank you!

Help us thank them by liking their post on Facebook!

Advancing Justice Together - Our 2020 Annual Celebration

Our 2020 annual celebration
Illustration by Symone Salib

On October 1, join us for a one night only virtual event celebrating those who help us Advance Justice Together. Our allies will come together from across the country to recognize all those who help us take on discrimination and poverty: pro bono partners, supporters and friends, and clients who stand up to the injustice they see in their own lives and the lives of their neighbors. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020
6 - 7:30 p.m.
Streaming virtually online

Both free and premium tickets are available for this event, but registration is required to attend. For more information about tickets, sponsorship, and accessibility, please contact Michael Berton at or 267-546-1303.

Tickets _ Information
Honoring those taking on gun violence in Philadelphia

Our clients taking on gun violence in Philadelphia 
Gun violence in Philadelphia is a longstanding crisis, claiming hundreds of lives every year. This year, we are honoring those who refuse to accept this status quo and demand action with our 2020 Thaddeus Stevens Award at our annual celebration.

These include our clients in an ongoing case defending the City of Philadelphia's right to enforce a law requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns within 24 hours--two mothers who have lost sons in shootings committed with guns from Philadelphia and three organizations committed to taking on gun violence. In the face of fierce opposition, they are taking a courageous stand for their communities. Read more about their case on our website.
  • Kimberly Burrell
  • Freda Hall
  • CeaseFirePA
  • Mothers in Charge
  • Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network
Philadelphia Department of Public Health 
We will also recognize the steadfast work of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. While taking on the COVID-19 global pandemic, Philadelphia's Department of Public Health has continued to research and develop new ways to take on the everyday public health emergency of gun violence in Philadelphia. We are proud to join them in the PA Safety Alliance, a new statewide coalition of community groups, teachers, physicians, faith leaders, and others who advocate for evidence-based gun safety policy.