Perhaps the most consequential changes have happened in the Department of Justice. That message came home yesterday in reports about the DOJ threatening to sue Maricopa, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for failing to cooperate in an investigation of charges that his department discriminates against Hispanics.
During the Bush years, the DOJ systematically withdrew resources
from civil rights enforcement, marginalized many staff civil rights attorneys,
and hired inexperienced but outspokenly conservative career attorneys in
violation of civil service provisions. Altogether 236 career civil rights
lawyers left the DOJ between 2003 and 2007 (out of a staff of about 350), many
alienated by the increasingly politicized atmosphere there. In addition, Bush's
Justice Department nearly ceased litigating housing and employment cases,
shifted energy away from minority voting rights cases to allegations of voter
fraud, and filed relatively few amicus briefs in support of privately litigated
civil rights cases.
Beefing up the DOJ's civil rights enforcement is one of the promises that the Obama administration has kept. In a speech at Howard University, shortly after launching his campaign, Obama unsparingly criticized "a Justice Department whose
idea of prosecuting civil rights violations is trying to rollback affirmative
action programs at our colleges and universities; a Justice Department whose
idea of prosecuting voting rights violations is to look for voting fraud in
black and Latino communities where it doesn't exist." The DOJ's decision to drop the spurious Bush-initiated lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party for alleged voter intimidation, is one example of improvement.
At Howard, and in his
campaign platform, Obama pledged that he would staff the Civil Rights Division
"with civil rights lawyers who prosecute civil rights violations, and
employment discrimination, and hate crimes. And we'll have a Voting Rights
Section that actually defends the right of every American to vote without
deception or intimidation." As president, Obama quietly but aggressively upheld that promise. Under his attorney general, Eric Holder, the Department of Justice
began stepping up civil rights enforcement.
turned its attention to "high impact" discrimination cases. It filed briefs
supporting affirmative action in the New Haven firefighters case (struck down
by the Supreme Court), argued on behalf of maintaining preclearance provisions
in voting rights enforcement (the requirement that districts with a history of
discrimination get Department of Justice approval for changes in voting
arrangements), and supported a lawsuit (won in a federal court in New York)
that requires Westchester County, New York, communities to construct affordable
housing to expand options for minorities in the job-rich suburbs.