Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Thomas E. Perez Tasked With Rebuilding the DOJ Civil Rights Division


Yesterday, the US Senate approved the nomination of Thomas E. Perez as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.  His confirmation marks the first time a Hispanic has served in this position. Senate Republicans had delayed Perez’s nomination for more than six months.

Perez, who is the son of Dominican immigrants, will assume responsibility for what Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., says he plans to make a “crown jewel” of the department.  Under Perez’s direction, Holder hopes to refocus the division back to protecting minorities from discrimination. During the Bush administration there was a shift that led to cases of religious discrimination and human trafficking being included in the department’s scope. This broadening of scope, paired with political hiring scandals and racial insults, that were typical of the civil rights division during the Bush years according to an independent investigation by the Office of the Inspector General, created strained relationships with many civil rights veterans.

At one time the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division was regarded as the nation’s leader in the protection of minorities’ rights. Currently, it is being rebuilt after having been “destroyed” during the Bush administration according to John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. While this division is rebuilt there is a growing backlog of concerns, including the review of the Mexican man beaten to death in Shenandoah, PA by four white teenagers and the acquittal of seven guards caught on tape causing the death of a 14 year-old black boy.

Restoring the credibility and power the division once had is a monumental task and Holder recognizes that. In the 2010 budget he requested $22 million for civil rights work, which would create 54 new legal positions and bring the staff up to 399 lawyers. Earlier this month he told the Hispanic Bar Association that he plans to hold true to his promise that “the civil rights division would fight discrimination as fiercely as the criminal division fights crime — and that we would once again honor the spirit of the movement that inspired its creation. . . . Although much work lies ahead, we are well on our way.”

Hearing that the civil rights division is going to be moving forward is music to some former staff’s ears. Many spoke of the damage done by former leadership which only filed one discrimination case on behalf of a black voter from 2001 to 2006 and placed lawyers, some with little to no civil rights experience, in permanent civil rights positions because they were ideologically in line with the Bush administration. In the aftermath, more than half of the division’s most experience lawyers have left in the last eight years.

According to Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the department, the attorney general’s goal is to return to the department’s traditional civil rights agenda. The Justice Department’s civil rights division was founded in 1957 to enforce anti-discrimination laws and over the years the division has seen its scope grow from voting rights to housing, employment, and disability discrimination.

John Amaya, a former Justice Department lawyer who now works on immigration issues at the National Council of La Raza, believes that the combination of the backlog of civil rights complaints and Perez’s confirmation being delayed is making it difficult for the division to accomplish much on many of the most important cases.  The civil rights division has “launched a number of investigations” into hate crimes against Latinos, he said. “Now we just want to see them concluded.”

The Washington Post