The law was the first major civil rights legislation since Reconstruction and helped build the foundational infrastructure for all future civil rights enforcement. Most importantly, it created the civil rights division within the Department of Justice — a division that quickly became a cornerstone for the entire civil rights movement (and the place where I started off my legal career).
In the division’s earliest days, it prosecuted the case of three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and helped investigate the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers. One of its earliest leaders, John Doar, put his life on the line to single-handedly stop a riot in Jackson, Mississippi, after the assassination of Evers in 1963, and he personally escorted James Meredith during his repeated attempts to register as the first Black student at the University of Mississippi. Doar’s successor, Stephen Pollak, aggressively worked to implement the Fair Housing Act to fight segregation. Throughout the decades, the division has been a leader on voting rights, school desegregation, housing discrimination, lending discrimination and race discrimination cases.
But during the Trump administration, the civil rights division has been turned upside-down, refashioned to promote a curdled vision of America, both in its refusal to enforce existing civil rights laws and, more recently, by its actively working to undermine inclusive efforts at equal justice. In short, there is no administration that has done more to obstruct and defy the mission of the division in its 63-year existence.
Within the first six months of Trump’s inauguration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions dramatically rolled back the use of consent decrees as a vehicle for promoting systemic reform of police departments found to routinely violate civil rights. Sessions ordered a complete review of all consent decrees and even tried to pull the Justice Department out of pending agreements involving the Baltimore and Chicago police departments. Overall, the division’s enforcement actions have dropped precipitously compared to those pursued by President Barack Obama’s administration, and cases to address race discrimination are few and far between.
Under Trump, the division has ventured into areas of law that would have been almost unfathomable under any previous leadership. The division changed its position to support of discriminatory voting ID laws in Texas. It filed an amicus brief in a federal lawsuit opposing Harvard University’s race-conscious affirmative action policies, and more recently issued an intent-to-sue letter to Yale University over its race-conscious admissions policies, matters that the Lawyers’ Committee is actively involved with now. It has actively undermined critical protections for LGBTQ workers and LGBTQ students. The division has even gone so far as to challenge common-sense health measures related to Covid-19 and has worked to obstruct the fair count of communities of color in the 2020 census.
On measure, the most dramatic changes have happened on Attorney General William Barr’s watch.
Barr refused to allow a “pattern-and-practice” investigation into systemic racial discrimination by the Minneapolis Police Department after the killing of George Floyd. In May — during the height of the coronavirus epidemic — the Justice Department filed a brief supporting Alabama’s absurd requirement that all absentee ballots be certified by a witness, a move that undermines access for senior citizens and people of color. And in late August, the division sent a letter to four Democratic governors threatening to investigate their policies on Covid-19 patients in nursing homes — a letter that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer jointly called a “nakedly partisan deflection.” This is an attorney general who has weaponized the civil rights division to promote Trump’s political prerogatives.
Meanwhile, proactive cases aggressively protecting or expanding the civil rights of vulnerable communities have all but disappeared. Even as hate crimes have spiked across the nation, federal prosecutions of hate crimes have not kept pace. And as we get set to enter a surreal election amidst a pandemic — and only the second presidential election since the Supreme Court gutted voting rights protections in the Shelby County v. Holder case — the Justice Department has done virtually nothing to help ensure a free, fair, and accessible election. Rather than providing guidance and standards to help states struggling through an unprecedented pandemic, Barr has served as an echo chamber for Trump’s baseless claims that voting by mail is susceptible to fraud.
Since its very inception, the civil rights division has been a target of anti-civil rights politicians precisely because it can be a powerful tool for the expansion of human dignity. Virulent segregationist Strom Thurmond even engaged in what remains the longest filibuster in American history to try to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Our system of justice has the power to deliver on the core American ideals of inclusion and diversity, but the frontline federal attorneys tasked with that mission have been sidelined, ignored and increasingly turned into tools of oppression.
Just two weeks after President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he announced to the nation that he was sending federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the Supreme Court’s school integration ruling. He described the belief in equal justice under law as a “cornerstone of our liberties.”
The current leader of the civil rights division, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, wrote in April that the nation is “battling a life-threatening virus, but the same principles that guided Lincoln must guide us now, especially when it comes to protecting our civil rights.” He affirmed the division’s commitment to its mission and dedication “to protecting those who are targeted for their disability, religion, race, or other protected trait.” But his words ring hollow, because such rhetoric is fully at odds with the devastating track record that has been forged on his watch.
Trump and the leaders that he has installed have taken a sledgehammer to that cornerstone and undermined one of the most important federal agencies we have in fighting discrimination. We must hold Dreiband accountable, rebuild the civil rights division and help it reclaim its rightful place as a warrior for equal justice under law.