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Nonwhite Georgia voters have to wait in line for hours. Here are 2 critical reasons why

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Kathy spotted the long line of voters as she pulled into the Christian City Welcome Center about 3:30 p.m., ready to cast her ballot in the June 9 primary election.

Hundreds of people were waiting in the heat and rain outside the lush, tree-lined complex in Union City, an Atlanta suburb with 22,400 residents, nearly 88% of them Black. She briefly considered not casting a ballot at all, but decided to stay.

By the time she got inside more than five hours later, the polls had officially closed and the electronic scanners were shut down. Poll workers told her she'd have to cast a provisional ballot, but they promised that her vote would be counted.

“I'm now angry again, I'm frustrated again, and now I have an added emotion, which is anxiety," said Kathy, a human services worker, recalling her emotions at the time. She asked that her full name not be used because she fears repercussions from speaking out. “I'm wondering if my ballot is going to count."

By the time the last voter finally got inside the welcome center to cast a ballot, it was the next day, June 10.

The clogged polling locations in metro Atlanta reflect an underlying pattern: the number of places to vote has shrunk statewide, with little recourse. Although the reduction in polling places has taken place across racial lines, it has primarily caused long lines in nonwhite neighborhoods where voter registration has surged and more residents cast ballots in person on Election Day. The pruning of polling places started long before the pandemic, which has discouraged people from voting in person.

In Georgia, considered a battleground state for control of the White House and U.S. Senate, the difficulty of voting in Black communities like Union City could possibly tip the results on Nov. 3. With massive turnout expected, lines could be even longer than they were for the primary, despite a rise in mail-in voting and Georgians already turning out by the hundreds of thousands to cast ballots early.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013 eliminated key federal oversight of election decisions in states with histories of discrimination, Georgia's voter rolls have grown by nearly 2 million people, yet polling locations have been cut statewide by nearly 10%, according to an analysis of state and local records by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica. Much of the growth has been fueled by younger, nonwhite voters, especially in nine metro Atlanta counties, where four out of five new voters were nonwhite, according to the Georgia secretary of state's office.

The metro Atlanta area has been hit particularly hard. The nine counties — Fulton, Gwinnett, Forsyth, DeKalb, Cobb, Hall, Cherokee, Henry and Clayton — have nearly half of the state's active voters but only 38% of the polling places, according to the analysis.

As a result, the average number of voters packed into each polling location in those counties grew by nearly 40%, from about 2,600 in 2012 to more than 3,600 per polling place as of Oct. 9, the analysis shows. In addition, a last-minute push that opened more than 90 polling places just weeks before the November election has left many voters uncertain about where to vote or how long they might wait to cast a ballot.

The growth in registered voters has outstripped the number of available polling places in both predominantly white and Black neighborhoods. But the lines to vote have been longer in Black areas, because Black voters are more likely than whites to cast their ballots in person on Election Day and are more reluctant to vote by mail, according to U.S. census data and recent studies. Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica found that about two-thirds of the polling places that had to stay open late for the June primary to accommodate waiting voters were in majority-Black neighborhoods, even though they made up only about one-third of the state's polling places. An analysis by Stanford University political science professor Jonathan Rodden of the data collected by Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica found that the average wait time after 7 p.m. across Georgia was 51 minutes in polling places that were 90% or more nonwhite, but only 6 minutes in polling places that were 90% white.

Georgia law sets a cap of 2,000 voters for a polling place that has experienced significant voter delays, but that limit is rarely if ever enforced. Our analysis found that, in both majority Black and majority white neighborhoods, about nine of every 10 precincts are assigned to polling places with more than 2,000 people.

A June 2020 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that the average number of voters assigned to a polling place has grown in the past five years in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — all states with substantial Black populations that before Shelby needed federal approval to close polling places under the Voting Rights Act. And though dozens of states have regulations on the size of voting precincts and polling places or the number of voting machines, the analysis found that many jurisdictions do not abide by them.

Georgia's state leadership and elections officials have largely ignored complaints about poll consolidations even as they tout record growth in voter registration. As secretary of state from 2010 to 2018, when most of Georgia's poll closures occurred, Brian Kemp, now the governor, took a laissez-faire attitude toward county-run election practices, save for a 2015 document that spelled out methods officials could use to shutter polling places to show “how the change can benefit voters and the public interest."

Kemp's office declined to comment Thursday on the letter or why poll closures went unchallenged by state officials. His spokesperson referred back to his previous statements that he did not encourage officials to close polling places but merely offered guidance on how to follow the law.

The inaction has left Black voters in Georgia facing barriers reminiscent of Jim Crow laws, said Adrienne Jones, a political science professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta who has studied the impact of the landmark Shelby decision on Black voters.

Voter suppression “is happening with these voter impediments that are being imposed," Jones said.

“You're closing down polling places so people have a more difficult time getting there. You're making vote-by-mail difficult or confusing. Now we're in court arguing about which ballots are going to be accepted, and it means that people have less trust in our state."

In August, on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the Democratic Party of Georgia, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and three Georgia voters sued the state and more than a dozen counties in federal court, alleging that some of the state's most populous areas have disenfranchised voters for more than a decade with long lines caused by inadequate staff, training, equipment and voting locations.

The suit, which was dismissed after the judge ruled the parties had no standing to file, warned of upheaval during the Nov. 3 election.

“As bad as the situation would be in normal circumstances, the burden is made far worse by the global pandemic," the lawsuit stated. “Absent judicial intervention, Georgia is set for more of the same (and likely far worse than it has ever seen) in November."

Republican Brad Raffensperger, who took over as secretary of state in January 2019, has called for more resources and polling places, but he has been unable to push these changes through the GOP-controlled legislature.

Raffensperger's office blames Democrats and county elections officials for opposing his efforts to improve access. “As Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger pushed legislation that would force counties to expand polling locations and directly address these issues," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said in an email.

“Unfortunately, every single Democratic Senator and Representative voted against this proposal saying that it would cause 'confusion.' Georgia voters deserve to know who is actually holding back progress and it isn't the Secretary of State's Office."

Democrats and voting rights groups said they opposed the Raffensperger-backed bill because they believed it weakened state election supervision and made it harder for people to vote. The proposal shifted even more responsibility for elections from the state to counties, “without the necessary training, funding or support," Lauren Groh-Wargo, chief executive of Fair Fight, a voting rights group founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, said at the time.

A History of Discrimination

Georgia's history of voting violations stretches back more than a century, with poll taxes, literacy and citizenship tests, and intimidation that disenfranchised many Black citizens.

Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Georgia and eight other states with histories of discrimination were required to seek federal approval before making changes such as eliminating polling places in Black neighborhoods or shifting polling locations at the last minute. Dozens of counties and townships in six more states also had to seek pre-clearance.

Then in 2013, in a case brought by Shelby County, Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the method for determining which jurisdictions had to seek prior approval, saying it was unconstitutional because it was outdated. The court suggested that Congress could pass new guidelines, but lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement, leaving the pre-clearance requirement unenforceable.

Jones, the Morehouse professor, said the recent changes would clearly have required federal approval if not for the Shelby decision.

“All of these kinds of exercises … would have had to be considered by the Department of Justice — or would not have been suggested because it would have been clear that the Department of Justice would have dinged them," she said. “And part of that has to do with the importance of Black voters, particularly in the Democratic Party."

Exacerbating Shelby's impact in Georgia was an explosion in voter registrations. Thanks in part to the state's “motor voter" law that updates records whenever a voter interacts with the Department of Driver Services, the state's voter rolls have swelled by a third since the 2012 presidential election. In two metro Atlanta counties, Gwinnett and Henry, the voting population shifted from majority white to majority nonwhite, contributing to Georgia's transition from red state to purple.

As the number of voters was swelling, county officials across the state began a steady stream of closures of polling locations.

By June 2020, Georgia voters had 331 fewer polling places than in November 2012, a 13% reduction. Because of added pressure from the coronavirus pandemic, metro Atlanta alone had lost 82 voting locations by the time June's primary rolled around. Nearly half of the state's 159 counties had closed at least one polling place since 2012.

Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, and DeKalb County realigned dozens of precincts after some municipalities were annexed or newly established. Other counties cited changes in voter behavior, or tight budgets, but the Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica analysis found only nominal savings.

In Union City, about 20 minutes southwest of Atlanta in Fulton County, the number of active voters has grown about 60% since 2012.

Three polls were open for the June primary, with 9,000 voters assigned to the Christian City Welcome Center. Two additional polling places are being set up for the Nov. 3 election, including one that will reduce the burden on the Welcome Center. Three others, however, will still have more than 5,000 voters each.

In a September county elections board meeting, Fulton officials said the goal had been to add more polling places in 2020 to accommodate population growth. The coronavirus pandemic resulted in closures or relocations, but most sites have been reopened.

Urban Congestion at the Polls

The influx of voters meant that already overburdened polling places got even busier.

Statewide, the number of voters served by the average polling place rose 47%, from 2,046 voters in 2012 to 3,003 as of Oct. 9, according to the analysis. Some rural counties have as many as 22,000 voters assigned to a single polling place.

Forsyth County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, has grown its voter rolls by nearly 60% — or 60,000 voters — in the last eight years. Forsyth, a mostly white county about 45 minutes' drive north of Atlanta, now averages about 8,000 voters per polling place. Officials cut nine of its 25 polling places in 2013 and another after the 2016 election, but added back five locations in 2019. No additional sites are expected to be opened for the November election.

Fulton County added nearly a quarter-million voters while consolidating voting locations. When the coronavirus struck, the last-minute unavailability of two polling places forced the assignment of 16,000 people to vote in June at Park Tavern, a restaurant/event space that reported 350 voters in line before the first vote was cast.

Six of Gwinnett County's seven most congested polling places serve predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods. In Lawrenceville, home to one of the largest Black populations in the county, a judge ordered polls at the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources to stay open late during the primary for the nearly 7,000 voters assigned there. It was one of 16 polling locations with missing voting machines on the morning of the primary election.

Angela Maddox, a health care worker, cast her ballot there for the Aug. 11 primary runoff, when only local rather than statewide races were on the ballot. She said she was grateful that equipment was in place and low turnout meant no lines. The reports of voters waiting six hours or more in the primary were “disgusting," she said.

“I know it's a big problem and it seems to continuously happen in Black communities," she said. “That's where you tend to see a lot of the machines breaking down, or fewer machines, or any and everything to not count our vote, which is not fair."

Gwinnett County officials obtained federal approval in 2010 — before the Shelby decision — to reduce the number of polls from 163 to 156, citing cost savings and operational efficiency. Since then, the county has kept the same number of polling places while adding more than 175,000 active voters. The average polling place handled 3,649 voters in the June primary and is set for 3,719 for November.

Who's to Blame?

Since the Shelby decision, the Georgia State Election Board, chaired by Raffensperger, has been the primary body for investigating and potentially sanctioning counties found to have violated election laws and procedures.

But the election board has rarely investigated the sort of violations that the U.S. Department of Justice once stepped in to review under the Voting Rights Act.

**Since 2010, when Kemp began his eight-year stint as secretary of state, the board has heard hundreds of cases, citing individuals for such violations as wearing political gear to the polls, and rebuking counties for mishandling voter registrations or absentee ballots. But it has taken no action to examine the poll closures that have been approved post-Shelby and has allowed a backlog of dozens of complaints to accumulate. In 2015, Kemp's office sent the letter to county elections officials that included advice on closing polling places.

In September, with Georgia in the national spotlight over its handling of elections, the board cleared a backlog of nearly 100 outstanding cases dating back to 2014, and referred several to the attorney general's office for further review. Among those was Fulton County's alleged mishandling of the June primary. The attorney general's office is still investigating.

In early October, the secretary of state's office told four counties that had long lines, absentee ballot problems and late opening or closing polls in the primary — Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett in the metro Atlanta area and Chatham County in southeast Georgia —to avoid a repeat by providing weekly updates on poll worker training, polling places and line management plans.

Besides the board's actions, the Georgia Senate considered a proposal filed in February and endorsed by Raffensperger. It would have required county elections supervisors to add more equipment or poll workers, or split up any precincts with more than 2,000 voters, if there was a wait longer than an hour measured at three different points on Election Day.

More than 1,500 of Georgia's 2,655 precincts have at least 2,000 voters — many of them in urban Democratic counties — and Raffensperger said at the time that voters should never have to wait more than 30 minutes.

But the bill, SB 463, was opposed by Democratic lawmakers and voting rights groups, who argued that any revamping in an election year would cause confusion and create more ways to keep people from casting their ballot.

“Do you have any concerns about trying to change the rules of the game in the middle of an election cycle when we have so much litigation that is currently pending with respect to the state's handling of previous elections?" state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat from Atlanta, asked during the floor debate.

The bill originated in the state Senate, which approved it. The proposal then went to a state House of Representatives committee, where Republicans substituted a version that didn't address the polling place issue and barred the secretary of state and county elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters. Their redesign never reached a floor vote, eliminating any prospect of legislative changes in the 2020 session, which ended in June.

That same month, after the primary election, Raffensperger held a press conference in Fulton County outside Park Tavern, which had processed more voters than 96% of the state's polling places. Flanked by posters highlighting recent election woes, he urged local officials to add poll workers and voting locations while improving technical support and training.

“We know that we need a more diverse pool of voting locations to spread the load of voters that we are anticipating," Raffensperger said.

Nikema Williams, chair of Georgia's Democratic Party, said that while state officials took little or no action to stop widespread voting problems in non-white communities, local elections officials are also responsible, since they ultimately decide whether to close or open more voting sites.

“We added counties as a defendant in the [August] lawsuit because we want to make sure that we're getting this right," she said. “And at the end of the day, what matters to us is that voters are not negatively impacted at any level of the electoral process."

Although the judge chided Democratic officials for offering vague remedies and failing to provide sufficient evidence that long lines are likely in November, Phi Nguyen, litigation director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, said there is plenty of evidence in plain sight.

Nguyen's organization has challenged a number of Georgia election laws in court, including the “exact match" policy that blocks voter registrations that do not exactly match a state or federal database. AAAJA also filed a lawsuit that forced Gwinnett County to change its process for rejecting absentee ballots.

She said the metro Atlanta counties' election administrators have not kept up with the wave of newer, more diverse voters, increasing the chances of disenfranchisement.

Nguyen was a poll monitor at the Infinite Energy Center arena for the primary and did not leave until the final votes were cast, well after polls closed at 7 p.m. “Georgia made national news because of the breakdown in our election systems," she said. “Long lines are certainly an issue and they happen more often in under-resourced places, which tend to be where communities of color live."

Changes Before Election Day

Some counties in the metro Atlanta area have tried to increase polling locations before the November election.

Just weeks before Nov. 3, Fulton County approved 91 new polling places, focusing on areas where the lines were longest for the June primary. Fourteen polling places — including two of the four polling places in Union City — will still have more than 5,000 voters assigned, but that's a sharp drop from the 60 sites that had more than 5,000 voters assigned for the primary election, said Fulton County Elections Director Rick Barron.

“If you have fewer people assigned to a polling location, you have fewer people that are going to go to that location," he said. “We had some polling places in June where we had 9,000-17,000 voters assigned to these locations, so what this does is it spreads everyone out amongst many more locations."

The more than 16,000 primary voters who were assigned to Park Tavern are now split among five polling places, ranging from fewer than 1,500 voters to nearly 5,500. Park Tavern will remain a polling site, with about 4,300 voters.

But widespread rejiggering of polling locations just weeks before a presidential election comes with its own risks. A 2018 study of North Carolina voters from Stanford University found that relocating polling places decreases turnout, especially for younger voters.

For now, Fulton County officials are hoping for an 80% early voting rate to minimize voter confusion and other problems on Election Day, when the nation's eyes will once again be on Georgia. And they have doubled the election budget to $34 million, purchasing two mobile voting buses as polling sites to alleviate early lines and launching a massive outreach campaign to change voter behavior.

There are more than 30 early voting locations, including a mega-voting site at Atlanta's professional basketball arena equipped with 60 check-in computers and 300 voting machines. On the first day of in-person early voting Monday, Oct. 12, officials recorded the second-highest single-day total in recent years. Statewide, a record 128,000 Georgians braved long lines that first day.

Still, Kathy in Union City is worried that her vote won't be counted.

“When you look at the systemic issues that plague us as a society, oftentimes we're screaming but we're not being heard," she said. “Historically, we have seen that services and resources for Black communities have always been very inadequate, and this is just an extension of that. ... How could there be such a huge disparity?"

Filed under:

How Trump's trade representative blew up 60 years of trade policy

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

On a spring day in 2017, Robert Lighthizer walked through the doors of the office of the United States Trade Representative to introduce himself to the career staff who had shepherded American trade policy for a generation. After a chaotic few months awaiting Lighthizer's confirmation, officials were eager for stability; Lighthizer offered deep expertise in a cabinet full of government neophytes. As a Washington operative with years of experience in international trade, he seemed like the best appointment they were likely to get under the circumstances.

There was, nonetheless, considerable apprehension among the few hundred USTR staff gathered in the auditorium. President Donald Trump had built his campaign on scathing criticism of the treaties the people in the room had forged over years of hard work. “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people," Trump had said, the very first time he rode down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy. “But we have people that are stupid."

Lighthizer offered a conciliatory tone at that first meeting — acknowledging, one official said, “that he would have a different approach that some of us might disagree with, but that he would be open to hearing our views.'' Remembered another: “He set out the broad goals of righting the wrongs that had been visited upon us but also tried to be reassuring and respectful of staff capabilities."

Over the next 3½ years, Lighthizer did listen to the staff he inherited. But this child of the Rust Belt, whose views were honed through years of fighting unfair practices by America's trading partners, made it clear he shared Trump's critique of U.S. trade policy in substance, if not tone.

Lighthizer set out on an audacious plan to rebalance American trade relationships around the world, levying sweeping tariffs, hamstringing international institutions, pulling out of agreements and threatening to ditch even more. His boss, a self-styled dealmaker, loved the tactics. Lighthizer delivered what Trump demanded and did it without claiming credit — preserving his post while other White House personnel came and went.

With the election just a few weeks away, it's worth taking stock of how this signature element of the Trump agenda has worked out. This story is based on interviews with dozens of current and former career staff at USTR, their counterparts in other countries, and interest groups — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with the Trump administration. Lighthhizer himself declined to be interviewed, as did most of his former top deputies.

The picture that emerges is complex. Even critics of the administration said that Lighthizer had a point when he argued that the gentler tactics of his predecessors had not been effective. And they acknowledge that the once-obscure USTR is more powerful than it's ever been, its mission reoriented from easing corporate investment barriers overseas to erecting hurdles that might force those companies to keep jobs in America after decades of manufacturing decline.

Along the way, Lighthizer has bent the rules of the international trading system and thrown businesses into turmoil as they race to comply with changes to import costs. He's ruptured international relationships, maintained tariffs on $350 billion worth of imports, and constructed a series of piecemeal and delicate agreements with trading partners that are as good as the next president's dedication to enforcing them.

So far, the promised benefits of this upheaval are hard to see. The gap between American imports and exports of goods is as big as it's ever been, while manufacturing output and job growth flatlined in 2019. To the extent that manufacturers have pulled out of China, they've shifted to countries like Vietnam and Mexico, rather than set up factories in the U.S. And Lighthizer has failed to achieve his most ambitious goals, as a tempestuous president's abrupt twists and turns sabotaged the patient, insistent approach on which his trade representative had built his reputation.

In their defense, turning the ship of global trade may take more than one four-year term. Lighthizer's stated goal is to return to a world in which everyone plays by the same rules, without the need for punitive barriers, and it's possible he could get there with time.

But it doesn't look likely. Lori Wallach, who runs the Global Trade Watch arm of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen gives Lighthizer credit for trying to break down the mainstream bipartisan consensus that freer trade is always better. Still, she thinks that Trump's tactics have undermined his goal of reviving America's industrial might.

“Lighthizer has changed a lot of thinking in dramatic ways, which is terrific," Wallach said. At the same time, she acknowledged, “he has not been able to reverse decades of boneheaded, job-killing trade policies, such that we still see a trade deficit today that's bigger than when Trump took office, and ongoing outsourcing of jobs, despite good efforts to try and turn around a mess."

The Petitioners Bar

Despite spending his entire career in Washington, for the last few decades, Lighthizer's skeptical views of trade set him apart from the consensus that saw the North American Free Trade Agreement and other treaties passed with the enthusiastic support of both parties.

A native of Ashtabula, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie, he grew up in relative affluence, insulated from the struggles of a region in the throes of a massive steel industry contraction. A product of Catholic schools, Lighthizer headed to college at Georgetown, and stayed there for law school. He then worked at the prestigious firm Covington & Burling until 1978, when Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas asked a partner there for any smart conservative lawyers who might join his Finance Committee staff. He became Capitol Hill's youngest staff director, and positioned himself squarely in the middle of the conservative mainstream, paring budgets and shepherding Ronald Reagan's massive tax cut package through Congress.

In 1983, he joined Reagan's White House as deputy trade representative, which required tackling everything from a grain treaty with the Soviet Union to textile imports from China. But he focused in particular on protecting industrial giants, some in his home state, from Japanese competition. Access to the U.S. market, he recognized, was a big enough carrot to extract concessions from trading partners.

''I try to be friendly in negotiations,'' he told The New York Times in 1984. ''I'm not the theatrical type. The art of persuasion is knowing where the leverage is.''

Ultimately, import quotas on Japanese steel and cars didn't save the Rust Belt — Japanese automakers simply set up shop in the union-free American South, while robots thinned the ranks of workers needed on factory floors.

Lighthizer's divergence from conservative orthodoxy began in the 1990s, when the Republican Party left him, and embraced the orthodoxy that globalization and national specialization were all to the good.

After leaving government, Lighthizer joined Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom, becoming a heavy-hitting tax lobbyist known for his deep expertise and quick wit. As the tax revision wars wound down, he refocused on trade, representing a coalition of American steel companies charging foreign competitors with benefitting from unfair practices like government subsidies. Lighthizer became known as the unofficial king of “the petitioners bar," lawyers who argued cases before the government entities that enforce trade rules. It was hardly a glamorous field. Moving plants to cheaper locales all over the world was rapidly becoming the default setting for American companies, and plenty of attorneys were making good money helping them do it.

“The message Bob had was not one that the big business groups were supportive of," said Terry Stewart, a longtime trade lawyer who worked with Lighthizer. “That led to a failure of the mainstream business community and economists and politicians to recognize the challenges that led to the disenfranchisement of blue collar workers."

Members of the petitioners bar are often true believers, since they've been up close and personal with the crippling wage pressure, intellectual property theft and illegal subsidies that left American factories so vulnerable to imports. Lighthizer fought ferociously before the International Trade Commission, once arguing that suffering anything more than a “spiritual injury" at the hands of foreign steelmakers should entitle his clients to protection. (The Commission didn't buy it.)

Lighthizer became increasingly outspoken after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2000, heralding a steep decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs as companies rushed to the factory boomtowns of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Testifying before the U.S.-China Commission in 2010, Lighthizer scolded policymakers for “years of passivity and drift" toward China and urged a more aggressive approach. In 2008 and again in 2011, he wrote op-eds making the point that Reagan had been more than willing to throw up trade barriers to defend domestic producers.

For Lighthizer, the issue of the WTO is personal. The multilateral body ruled against the U.S. — and Skadden's clients — in numerous cases involving subsidy calculations. For the petitioners bar, it made the WTO's highest appellate court untenable.

“The fact that the Appellate Body had ruled against the U.S. repeatedly was the primary reason Lighthizer was determined to bring down the WTO," said a former USTR official.

Despite Lighthizer's tangles with chamber of commerce types, he breezed through Senate confirmation hearings in March 2017 by promising vigorous enforcement of existing trade agreements, drawing praise from both arch free-trader Orrin Hatch and fellow Ohioan Sherrod Brown.

The honeymoon would end quickly.

“It Was Like Someone Had Died"

Created by the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the USTR has a clear if dated mission: To develop “open and non-discriminatory trading in the free world; and to prevent communist economic penetration."

The law reflected a broad consensus in favor of expanded trade. From the staunchly conservative Wall Street Journal editorial pages to top Democratic advisers, most believed that the benefits of open markets far outweighed the costs. Those who disagreed were dismissed as xenophobic and unsophisticated. Decades later, Donald Trump blamed NAFTA for a host of ills — from the rise of automation to the decline of unions — and it helped him win traditionally Democratic states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

To be fair, conventional wisdom had begun to shift under President Barack Obama, as it became increasingly clear even to free-trade advocates that U.S. efforts to prevent China from flouting international rules and norms weren't working.

Obama spent much of his second term negotiating a trade pact with 12 other Pacific Rim countries, with the idea of creating a U.S.-centered economic bloc to counter China's influence, and tried to sell it to Congress. The Trans Pacific Partnership marked a rare point of agreement with Republican leadership, but an alliance of labor-oriented progressives and tea party conservatives opposed it. As trade emerged as a potent issue in the 2016 campaign, even the Democratric candidate Hillary Clinton — Obama's former secretary of state — was forced to turn against it as well.

Trump's surprise triumph in the election sent shock waves through the trade establishment. The day after the vote, a collection jar appeared on a countertop of the Geneva office, with a sign saying “Save America," recalled a former USTR employee. “That really was a moment in time when I knew that something was going to be different about this change," she said.

Obama's trade representative, Michael Froman, held a pep talk soon after the election, recalled Mark Linscott, the former assistant trade representative for Central and South Asian affairs, who left at the end of 2018. Trump will bring on some good people, Froman said, asking staff to give them a chance. Trump had promised to use tariffs as a cudgel, and Linscott thought that the tool, long out of favor among mainstream economists, might actually break some long-standing logjams.

“It did appear that this administration might be offering new approaches to leverage," Linscott said.

Many staffers harbored hopes that Trump would put his own stamp on the TPP agreement and move ahead with it. Instead, Trump pulled out of the deal on the first business day of his administration, stunning USTR officials who had devoted years to hammering out its intricately balanced details.

“It was like someone died," said one former staff member, describing the mood at headquarters on that rainy January Monday.

Negotiations on two other deals — the trade in services agreement and a broad European Union pact — were put on ice. Staff recall a briefing from Stephen Vaughn, a former Lighthizer law firm colleague who came on as acting USTR and then became general counsel, in which he told the legal team that there would be a dramatically scaled back focus on dispute settlement cases before the WTO — a key way in which USTR typically defends its interests.

“People left the room in tears," remembers a former USTR lawyer. “It felt like a bomb-dropping moment."

(Speaking for USTR, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney denied this happened. “We have never turned down a case that the professional staff wanted us to file at the WTO," he said. In response to an inquiry, Vaughn said that was his recollection as well.)

Despite his popularity on Capitol Hill, Lighthizer's nomination had been held up in the Senate as Democrats bartered on another issue. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross managed trade policy in Lighthizer's absence, along with the virulently anti-China trade advisor Peter Navarro.

Using a national security trade provision, Ross tried to slow China's steel exports with broad steel and aluminum tariffs. His move antagonized allies like Canada and the European Union, which would make USTR staff's jobs harder for the rest of Trump's term.

Soon after confirmation in May, Lighthizer consolidated control and hired three of his Skadden deputies — Jamieson Greer as chief of staff, Jeff Gerrish as his deputy, and Pam Marcus as the deputy chief of staff. The Lighthizer loyalists formed a tight-knit decision making unit.

“Lighthizer and his team came in not as free traders," said one USTR staff member who served through the transition. “And they intuited, or just knew, that most of the civil service at USTR work there because they believe in free trade. So there was real suspicion of the civil service, that we were not making the kinds of recommendations that Lighthizer would want to hear."

Mahoney said that Lighthizer values career staff, frequently praising them in building-wide emails when deals are concluded. “The career staff has always been welcome in Bob's office," he said.

Nevertheless, in the first year and a half, USTR lost more than 20% of its personnel, with 64 departures and retirements. (Churn continues, but the Office of Personnel Management has not provided updated numbers.) Many who remained felt that Lighthizer represented an old guard, with regressive views of how the economy should work.

He made some efforts to promote women: Three of the six assistant trade representatives he has hired are women. But the organization's top leadership is all male, and some female staff expressed that he is dismissive toward women, which current USTR chief of staff Kevin Garvey strongly denied.

“There's a cadre of 75-year-old white men in the trade realm who just want to turn back the hands of time," said another staffer. “They don't understand that the world has changed."

“Like Asking a Vegan to Sell Meat"

To Trump, relationships with other countries usually come down to who's “winning." In trade, that usually refers to the trade deficit — that is, America's exports to a country minus its imports. Like his boss, Lighthizer focused on the goods deficit, since the U.S. imports far more stuff than it exports, which he sees as a problem. That leaves out services, including everything from the many billions in financial expertise the U.S. provides, to tourists and foreign students who attend college here. On that front, the U.S. actually sells more to the rest of the world than it buys.

The new administration gave trade negotiators new marching orders: Minimize imports and maximize exports. One former negotiator remembers her conversations with India, with which the U.S. services deficit was smaller than its goods deficit.

“'What's going to help shape our relationship is going to be things that you can do to help mitigate the deficit that we have,'" she recalled telling her counterparts, with whom the U.S. has a thorny relationship. “I had to be honest about it. 'This is what matters to them, so let's find ways to work together to make a dent in that.'"

For a while, some USTR staff hoped that the zero-sum, economic winners-and-losers approach might solve intractable problems, even though they'd been used to considering the broader implications of trading relationships alongside the scorecard of imports and exports.

“I quickly realized that it wasn't going to be effective," said another recently departed official. Relationships between countries are multilayered, this official said, and can involve many kinds of mutual support. “When you see an allyship boiled down to a trade deficit, you know it's not going to work."

USTR personnel faced a strange duality: Their agency had more authority than ever, but to do things that they often didn't agree with.

“It definitely feels like USTR under Lighthizer got its swagger back on some of these things," said a corporate trade lobbyist, “even though it was a swagger gained by any number of lifelong civil servants who'd spent their careers negotiating trade agreements having to go in and un-negotiate them."

USTR's foreign counterparts also felt the whiplash.

“We negotiated TPP with a big brother, and all of a sudden big brother stepped down," said Salvador Behar, a top TPP negotiator for Mexico. (The pact has since been carried forward by the rest of the parties, leaving the U.S. without the deal's preferential access to their markets.)

Some of the same USTR negotiators who handled the TPP also worked on the NAFTA update, but singing a different tune. “It's kind of like asking a vegan person to sell meat," Behar said. “How come the U.S., which has been the promoter of free trade, is asking me to close markets and call it free trade?"

For some USTR employees, the work pace slowed. While Froman had wanted detailed briefing materials, Lighthizer only asked for two-page memos. While Froman traveled tirelessly, sleeping on red-eye flights, Lighthizer conducted many negotiations in Washington, while staying at his Georgetown townhouse or commuting to his Palm Beach oceanside condo.

But the staff never knew what to expect. Trump often gave no notice of his tariff pronouncements, blindsiding careful USTR employees. “When you're getting calls from the private sector asking what's going on, and you have to somewhat jokingly say, 'I haven't checked Twitter,' That can be a challenge," said one former staffer.

The uncertainty hurt negotiations. As Trump pursued a deregulatory agenda on everything from financial services to the environment, trade officials trying to uphold parallel regulations in international trade agreements had domestic policy thrown in their faces.

“Our counterparts felt more free to say, 'you're rolling back things in the U.S., and we're supposed to keep raising our standards?'" said one former staffer.

Not having the backing of the higher-ups decreases a trade negotiator's leverage, explained Wendy Cutler, who worked at USTR for nearly 30 years before leaving in 2015.

“There are times when cabinet officers can't even give an answer to their counterparts, because the president is personally making so many decisions," said Cutler, now vice president at the Asia Society. “It affects your ability to solve problems, if your counterpart doesn't think you can live up to your word."

One example: In 2018, Mahoney, the deputy trade representative, was negotiating with two important trading partners. A career staffer in the room told ProPublica that in the middle of what Mahoney was handling as a give-and-take conversation, the White House sent orders that no, in fact, the deal on the table was final. Mahoney dutifully conveyed the take-it-or-leave-it message to his foreign counterparts, then hung up the phone, distraught, and asked, “How are these people ever going to believe anything I say ever again?" said the witness, who has since departed the agency.

Mahoney said this account was “not accurate," and called the call a “constructive negotiation."

Over time, staff gained respect for Lighthizer's management of his single most important constituent: the president. While USTR's profile heightened, Lighthizer largely avoided the limelight, knowing that upstaging his boss could hasten his exit. He also coped with Trump's more extreme trade impulses, like hiking tariffs without warning and threatening to end various alliances and agreements.

“Bob's calling card as a negotiator is consistency," said one longtime steel lawyer who'd worked with Lighthizer since the 1980s. “Here you have a guy whose calling card is consistency working for a guy whose calling card is inconsistency."

The China Gambit

Lighthizer, 73, could have retired in 2017 with the upwards of $15 million that ethics disclosures show he made over his Washington career. But Trump offered him a shot at a lifelong dream: curing what he saw as America's unhealthy reliance on China.

Previous trade chiefs had unsuccessfully wrestled with the problem. The world's second-biggest economy had become a market system that was fundamentally different from the capitalist model upon which most international trade laws and norms are predicated.

The U.S. had hoped China would converge with the free-market mainstream when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2000, setting low tariffs and allowing foreign corporations equal access to its consumers. But the Chinese executed an about-face around the time of the great financial crisis, when capitalist systems neared collapse. Returning to a managed economy, they subsidized exports, required outside companies to enter joint ventures with Chinese ones, and encouraged widespread piracy of intellectual property.

China's WTO entry should have prevented backsliding, but that required someone to take complaints to the institution's dispute settlement mechanism. As time passed, smaller countries didn't want to go up against the regional hegemon and American companies had become too globalized to care, so China was never held to account.

“I'm faulting the whole world for not trying to hold China's feet to the fire," said Jennifer Hillman, a former WTO appellate body judge.

In the TPP, the Obama administration negotiated a trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations that would theoretically be so attractive to China, it would meet the pact's requirements for fair competition so that it could join. Meanwhile, talks continued on long-standing issues like access to the Chinese market for American financial services companies.

“There was a recognition that we had to get tougher on China," said Jeff Moon, an independent consultant who was USTR's top China official just before Trump took office. “That was going to happen under Hillary. But the huge difference was, that Trump wants to do it with America alone."

The Trump administration's thinking: Assembling a coalition of nations to pressure China would never have worked. “If our standard for doing something is to wait for all the allies to be on board, we're going to waste a lot of time and suffer a lot in the interim," Mahoney said.

Instead of picking up where Obama left off, Lighthizer ordered up a report on China's intellectual property infringement that could be used to justify unilateral tariffs under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, which previous administrations had threatened but never imposed.

“The 301 is a blunt instrument that can be used to achieve what in this instance likely could not have been achieved through the WTO — significant and quick impact," said Kathleen Claussen, a former USTR lawyer who worked on China's intellectual property issues.

The strategy kicked off the month before Trump and Lighthizer visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2017.

James Green, then a senior USTR officer in Beijing and one of the few China experts on staff, advised sealing the deal on previously negotiated issues before Trump's arrival, allowing Xi to claim a domestic victory. The Trump administration wanted China to “feel the pain," Green said.

“What I tried to argue internally was that the best opportunity we have to get concessions is before a presidential visit," said Green, now a senior research fellow at Georgetown University. “That was completely dismissed."

In June 2018, Lighthizer announced tariffs on about $50 billion worth of Chinese exports. China retaliated with steep duties on American agricultural goods. USTR hurled an even bigger tariff volley — and so it went until the end of 2019, when the administration delayed a new round of consumer goods tariffs set to go into effect right before Christmas.

Farmers, an important Trump political constituency, were compensated for the lost Chinese market with tens of billions of dollars in subsidies — more than the auto companies received during the last recession — and no obligation to repay them. But manufacturers, faced with higher prices for imported parts, got nothing. That helped drive the sector into a recession — a December 2019 study estimated that the tariffs depressed manufacturing employment in sectors on which they fell most heavily.

Meanwhile, talks proceeded. In January, China agreed to respect intellectual property, open its market to agricultural goods, and license American financial services providers, while committing to purchase $200 billion worth of U.S. goods. Although China had been pledging some of those commitments for years, Mahoney argued that the deal wouldn't have happened without applying tariffs.

“There were 10 rounds of negotiations with the Chinese on these issues before this administration," he said. “The strategy of talking to these people had been tried across two administrations and basically led to nothing."

Companies were relieved that the “Phase 1 Agreement" might herald a cessation of hostilities. But only 19% of companies surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in China thought the deal was worth years of tariff-driven disruption.

The pain has continued on both sides. Agricultural exports to China started rebounding in 2020, but are nowhere near their pre-trade war highs, as China has fallen short of its purchase commitments. Neither side dropped its tariffs significantly, while introducing complicated exemption processes. The tougher issues, regarding the tight control China's government exerts over its economy, were deferred to a second phase of talks.

Derek Scissors, a China scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, advised Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and the rest of Trump's economic team to use financial sanctions and bans on specific bad actors — state-owned enterprises and those that violate intellectual property protections — to attack China's practices directly. That would work better than bargaining for specific concessions like requiring China to buy large amounts of soybeans.

“I think that's his view," Scissors said of Lighthizer. “It's not the president's view. So he's got to negotiate with the Chinese, he's got to negotiate with the president, and to add to all that, he's got Steve Mnuchin going 'everything's fine, settled, sign here, deal's done.'"

In July, as Trump sought to refocus blame for the coronavirus on China, he acknowledged that a Phase 2 deal was unlikely.

Now, by Lighthizer's own metrics, the U.S. isn't winning the trade war. The trade deficit with China has barely budged, and it's widened with other countries like Vietnam as American companies responded to tariffs by moving operations elsewhere in the region.

Another factor undermining Lighthizer's approach is currency markets, which Treasury influences, not USTR. Asian countries have been holding their currencies artificially low relative to the dollar, which makes the goods the U.S. tries to sell overseas more expensive and decreases the potency of tariffs.

In September, a WTO panel ruled that the tariffs imposed under the 1974 Trade Act were illegal. Because Lighthizer's efforts to hobble the WTO included blocking the appointment of new judges, the high court that could overturn the decision on appeal no longer functions. The ruling stands, which would mean the WTO could authorize China to retaliate. China had already done so without authorization, another sign that the once-strict rules of international trade are being supplanted by a free-for-all in which each country does what it wants.

Business Flummoxed

Lighthizer brought another abrupt change to USTR: Making it clear that American business wasn't his only client.

The divergence came to a head quickly, during the overhaul of NAFTA, which Lighthizer conducted at warp speed for a trade agreement. In order to win over Democrats, he'd proposed getting rid of investor-state dispute settlement, which allows companies to sue governments in special courts over laws they perceive as discriminatory.

That and other issues had outraged trade groups, which complained that they needed a provision for settling disputes to protect their overseas investments from abroad. In early October 2017, heading into the fourth round of negotiations, National Association of Manufacturers vice president for government affairs Linda Dempsey requested an “urgent" meeting to discuss “increasing concerns throughout all the major US economic sectors," according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the watchdog group American Oversight.

USTR's chief of staff Jamieson Greer declined, suggesting that companies engage through already-scheduled staff briefings and the Industrial Trade Advisory Committees, a formal channel for stakeholders to weigh in on trade policies. (Under Lighthizer, some committee members say, that input has been ignored.)

At the conclusion of that round of talks, Lighthizer held a press conference at the stately white Winder Building, in a conference room packed with reporters. One asked about the business groups' objections, prompting an exasperated reply. Corporations purport to love free markets, Lighthizer snapped, waving his arms for emphasis. But instead of incorporating political risk into their international business decisions, now they want trade rules to protect them from anything that might go wrong?

“Why is it a good policy of the U.S. government to encourage investment in Mexico?" Lighthizer asked. In the end, he got what he wanted; the dispute settlement provision was mostly scrapped.

NAFTA wasn't the only matter on which business lobbies felt they had lost control. An ad hoc business group coalition held sometimes daily conference calls around Trump edicts, including his tweeted order that all U.S. companies move supply chains out of China. The coalition prepared a lawsuit should Trump actually invoke the 1977 law on which it was ostensibly based.

Trump didn't follow through. But the larger problem for businesses was that, even when USTR did want to act on their behalf, it didn't always ask their opinion. In the China negotiations, for example, nobody lobbied for specific purchase targets, which became the deal's largest selling point.

Although they're not usually cast as such, tariffs aren't so much a weapon against other countries as they are a signal to domestic business: Lighthizer was telling American companies that investing overseas wouldn't be the obvious choice it had been in the past.

“If that's your goal, I think that tariffs have worked their magic," said James Green, the former USTR staff member in Beijing. “He's made corporate America think about whether they want to invest their next dollar in China."

The biggest beneficiary of USTR's actions so far, on the other hand, may be tech companies: Google, Amazon and Facebook have hired at least a dozen USTR staffers since early in the administration, including high-level intellectual property specialists, and secured broad legal immunity concerning third-party content posted on internet platforms. Lighthizer's calendar shows 15 phone calls and meetings with Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2018 and 2019, more than any other corporate executive, as the iPhone maker lobbied for tariff exemptions. Some meetings were scheduled on less than a day's notice, correspondence shows.

On NAFTA, Lighthizer's willingness to tell business groups to pound sand was made possible by his skillful navigation of Congress, which has to sign off on comprehensive trade deals. The kumbaya moment, however, hasn't extended to the rest of Trump's narrower bilateral agreements, for which Lighthizer skipped lawmakers entirely.

“We need to be able to have Congress being full participants if we're going to make meaningful progress," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, voicing irritation about the mini-deals and tariff measures for which Lighthizer hasn't sought congressional approval.

Yet for all their grumbling, lawmakers have balked at reining in Trump's authority. The Senate Finance Committee has floated legislation that would constrain using national security to justify tariffs, but the bill hasn't moved forward — in part because lawmakers recognize that Trump likely wouldn't sign it.

Of course, Lighthizer knows that.

“With a lot of what he's done, there's a pretty brutally practical calculus," said a House aide on trade. “If I don't exactly jump through these hoops, is the U.S. Congress going to stand up and prevent us from doing this?"

A Fight to the Finish

The pandemic thwarted some of Lighthizer's plans for 2020, but he hasn't stopped fighting for higher tariffs.

In early March, it became apparent that many China-made supplies and equipment needed to control and treat infections were subject to tariffs, giving rise to attacks on protectionism as a public health threat. USTR exempted some of those goods, but Lighthizer has since opposed broader relief for medical products. At a June Senate Finance Committee hearing, he said he would consider pulling out of a pharmaceutical agreement that committed the U.S. to zero tariffs.

“I would be far more in favor of increasing tariffs on the things that we need as a part of an overall plan to make sure that the next time we have domestic manufacturing capability in these areas," Lighthizer said.

Lighthizer also announced that he would pursue a broad WTO tariff “reset." Over many years of negotiation, WTO members have varying maximum tariff rates, with less-developed nations usually imposing higher duties to protect growing industries. The average U.S. tariff is among the lowest in the world, and the plan proposes raising the U.S. tariff ceiling much higher, giving USTR negotiators more leverage as they ask other countries to lower their barriers. If they refuse, as expected, the Trump administration could then jack up America's tariffs to match the world's most protectionist countries.

The reset proposal sent ripples of alarm through Geneva and trade-war-weary Washington. “The business community's concern is that an effort to reset tariffs risks ending up with higher tariffs everywhere," said John Murphy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for international policy.

Meanwhile, Lighthizer's agency has started to destabilize. Stephen Vaughn, who was seen as a steadying influence, returned to his law firm last year. He had Lighthizer's trust and was seen as a conduit to the front office, making career staffers believe their advice was at least presented, if not heeded.

Lighthizer's original Skadden team returned to private practice earlier this year. In July, Lighthizer faced a staff revolt as he attempted to bring employees working at home during the pandemic back to the office. (Mahoney said this was optional.) Lighthizer then ordered that vacancies could no longer be filled from outside the agency, which Mahoney attributed to difficulties in interviewing candidates during the pandemic, and a rethinking of staffing levels.

If Joe Biden succeeds Trump, most experts expect a return to a less confrontational trade policy. But they recognize that Lighthizer's legacy can't be unwound quickly or neatly.

“I think Biden would come into office with a bank of goodwill," said Sam duPont, who worked at the agency's digital trade office until joining the German Marshall Fund earlier this year. “But the trade relationship with Europe, for example, is really strained. And a lot of things have been put in place that would have to be undone for that good will to be maintained."

Craig Allen, president of the U.S. China Business Council, served as Obama's ambassador to Brunei, a founding member of the TPP back in 2003. He keeps a framed replica of its Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Commerce and Navigation — a document that dates back to 1850 — in his office near Washington's Dupont Circle.

He remembered having to tell his diplomatic counterparts that the U.S. was withdrawing from the TPP, and worries that the relationship will never fully heal.

“It was painful, that we withdrew with nothing so much as a 'thank you very much." Allen continued. “All of our negotiating partners worked hard to meet our demands. It was very difficult for them to do so, and we walk away. But we are a democracy, and an ambassador must follow instructions."

What happens after a debt collection machine grinds to a halt

A year after Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare erased the $33,000 Carrie Barrett owed for unpaid hospital bills, the former Kroger grocery store clerk is figuring out how to open the food truck she's always dreamed of.

The nonprofit hospital system also erased more than $23,000 in debts owed by one of its own housekeepers who it sued for unpaid bills. And now she's dreaming of home ownership.

It's been one year since MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and ProPublica reported that Methodist was quietly erasing the debt owed by thousands of patients it'd sued over the past 19 years for unpaid hospital bills.

The debt cancellation, which wiped out nearly $12 million owed by more than 5,300 defendants, followed an investigation by the news organizations into the faith-based hospital's relentless efforts to collect on bills from low-income residents and even its own employees.

The hospital effectively ended the legal proceedings by filing thousands of notices with Shelby County General Sessions Court stating that the defendants' balances were now zero. The case-satisfied notices flooded the court clerk's office weeks after Methodist announced sweeping policy changes, including a far more generous charity care policy. More than half of the residents in the Memphis, Tennessee, metro area would qualify based on their household income.

While Methodist's decision to eradicate so much debt lifted a financial and psychological burden for many, it only addressed a piece of one of the myriad systems — such as low-wage jobs, lack of transportation and substandard housing — that make it hard for families to make ends meet.

I've stayed in touch with some of the defendants featured in last year's investigation, including Barrett, then a Kroger deli clerk who made $9.05 an hour, and a Methodist housekeeper who earned $12.15 an hour. I granted the housekeeper anonymity at the time because she worried that the hospital would fire her for talking to a journalist.

Today, Barrett said she's caught up on her bills, thanks in part to the generosity of a stranger who offered help after reading the initial stories.

Marilyn Boyd, who no longer works at the hospital and has now agreed to allow her name and photo to be used, said her finances are slightly better. She said she owes Methodist several thousand dollars for a 2014 surgery, but she hasn't been sued.

Still, neither has enough left after paying bills to establish an emergency fund. And in the last few months, unexpected expenses — for both of them, car repairs — forced them to borrow money.

A Debt Collection Machine Grinds to a Halt

Methodist filed more collection lawsuits in Shelby County General Sessions Court between 2014 and 2018 than all but one creditor.

Because it's a nonprofit, Methodist is required to offer some sort of financial assistance to low-income patients, although the IRS does not dictate how generous that assistance is.

For years, so many defendants sued by Methodist came to court that their cases consumed almost all of a courtroom's docket on Wednesday mornings, when a judge would hear nothing but Methodist's cases.

On one side would be a pair of Methodist attorneys and a contingent of Methodist employees. On the other side was the defendant — usually a black woman, almost never represented by an attorney. In front was a General Sessions Court judge, who was often unsympathetic to the defendants' request to pay less per month than Methodist wanted.

A comparison of the number of cases filed in the months and years before and after MLK50-ProPublica's investigation illustrates how Methodist's presence at the court went from massive to virtually nonexistent.

In 2018, the hospital filed just under 1,500 lawsuits, according to Shelby County General Sessions Court records.

Between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2019, the hospital filed close to 700 suits.

On June 27, MLK50 and ProPublica published the first story in the “Profiting from the Poor" investigation. Three days later, the hospital's president and CEO, Dr. Michael Ugwueke, announced the hospital would review its policies.

By July 3, 2019, the hospital had begun dropping lawsuits it'd filed against defendants and the finely tuned debt collection machine ground to a halt.

Between July and December 2019, Methodist filed two lawsuits. In 2020, it's only filed one suit. (Because of the pandemic, Shelby County General Sessions Court closed from March 13 to June 15.)

It's great news “that the hospital has made changes to its policy, that it's not further destabilizing people who got sick or injured and needed care," said Mark Rukavina, business development manager at Community Catalyst's Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation.

Last year, Methodist estimated that raising the pay of its lowest-paid workers to at least $13.50 an hour would cost $14 million. It's unclear how the other changes affected Methodist's bottom line. The hospital declined an interview request for this story, as it has since MLK50 asked for an interview in June 2019.

“I'm Still Not Going to Give Up"

In 2007, Barrett spent two nights in the hospital after she complained of shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. Her initial hospital bill was just over $12,000.

The hospital sued her in 2010 and over the years, with attorney's fees and added interest, her debt ballooned to more than $33,000. Fifteen times, Methodist garnished money from her paycheck.

When I met Barrett, she was in court, facing off with Shelby County General Sessions Court Judge Betty Thomas Moore, who'd ordered her to pay $100 a month toward the debt. If she'd paid as ordered and Methodist didn't add any additional interest, she would have been 90 years old by the time she was debt-free.

“The only thing that kept me levelheaded was praying and asking God to help me," she said last year.

When the debt was erased, she rejoiced — literally. At her church last year, she gave her fellow parishioners an update.

“I have a zero balance," she said. “I just want to thank God for blessings that he has brought to me. … I thank him for the victory!"

Today, Barrett, 64, makes ends meet with her Social Security payment and the money she receives for being a foster parent. That, plus the money she makes catering — she's already taking orders for Thanksgiving — covers her bills.

She'd anticipated that any foster child she had would be in school, but then the coronavirus pandemic struck. Shelby County Schools have been closed for in-person learning since March; school resumed in August, virtual only.

Earlier this month, she was frustrated: Her foster child was having difficulty logging on for virtual school.

“I'm not that good on the computer," she admitted. “My mind ain't equipped for all that."

She doesn't plan to return to Kroger, although it has offered her a job. She has her mind set on a career: Running a food truck.

“The food truck, I was trying to get stuff going with that, and I'm still not going to give up, because that's my dream," Barrett said.

Not long after the investigation was published, a woman in California reached out to Barrett to say she was touched by her story and horrified that the hospital had sued her. She sent Barrett money then and did so again just weeks ago.

The timing was perfect: Barrett had just taken out a payday loan to get her brakes fixed. She was able to use the woman's gift to pay off the loan and catch up on some bills.

“She said she didn't forget me and she was thinking of me during this coronavirus situation," Barrett said.

Free to Hope for a Brighter Future

Perhaps what most shocked readers was that Methodist sued its own employees, including ones it paid very little.

A MLK50-ProPublica analysis of Shelby County General Sessions Court records, online docket reports and case files showed that between 2014 and 2018, Methodist won a judgment against and tried to garnish the paychecks of more than 160 Methodist employees, and actually garnished employees' pay more than 70 times.

Between 2012 and 2014, Boyd visited Methodist five times for chronic stomach ailments. Insurance through her hotel housekeeping job, where she made $10.66 an hour, left her with $17,500 in hospital bills.

Methodist sued Boyd in 2017, before she started working at the hospital. In June 2019, she owed the hospital more than $23,000. Of that, $5,800 were attorney's fees.

At a hearing last year in General Sessions Court, Boyd was wearing her hospital uniform, standing in front of a judge and attempting to negotiate a reasonable payment. Methodist's attorneys wanted $200 a month, which she knew she couldn't do, so she agreed to $75 every two weeks.

Other Methodist workers interviewed were furious that their employer had sued them, but Boyd was more resigned than angry. “You know how much you pay me. And the money you're paying, I can't live on," Boyd said last year. Being an employee and defendant is “really kind of sad."

Although Boyd was only making $12.25 an hour, she needed her job and was hesitant to use her name in the story or be identifiable in photographs, for fear the hospital would fire her.

My editors and I decided to grant Boyd anonymity, which eased her fears but also meant that she didn't receive the same generous gifts from strangers who reached out directly to Barrett through her church.

But Boyd, 52, did benefit from another piece of the hospital's broad reform measures: Methodist raised the pay of its lowest-paid employees to $13.50 an hour in September 2019 and has said it will raise the pay to a minimum of $15 an hour in January 2021.

When the coronavirus pandemic reached Memphis, Boyd was still cleaning hospital rooms, including those of COVID-19 patients. She worried that she'd catch the virus at work and infect her daughter, who had a high-risk pregnancy, or her grandchildren.

Her fears of catching the virus and the stress of the toll the virus wrought started disturbing her sleep.

“When you see people dying all day, people don't think about it, but it messes with your mind," Boyd said.

She started seeing a counselor.

“You'd have to have a cold heart" to remain unaffected by the deaths, she said. “But my heart is too soft. I don't even know these people and I'm crying."

In August, she left the hospital for a warehouse job that pays $15 an hour. “I can make a little more money and it's less stressful," Boyd said. She's on her feet for the entire 12-hour shifts, so she's saving up for better shoes.

After Methodist erased the debt, the collection item fell off her credit report. “It was a big chunk that came off my credit," Boyd said. “My credit score is a little better now."

“In a couple years from now, if I'm doing better, I want to get a house," she said. “And if my credit is going up, I'll be able to do those things one day."

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