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Antoine Morris

The Civil Rights Agenda for next AG

Next month will mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment the civil rights division at the Justice Department whose historic mission was to enforce federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination. Traditionally, the division was staffed by dedicated non-political lawyers. But all that dramatically changed during the tenures John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales as respective heads of the Justice Department.

Media accounts abound of how the civil rights division suffered during the Bush administration. The hiring of Justice employees on a partisan basis, political appointees running roughshod over the more experienced and expert career attorneys, and rewriting long held policies on investigations to achieve political advantage have reportedly been the norm since 2001. In fact, under Alberto Gonzales' leadership the division was so thoroughly politicized, and morale so low it led to the mass exodus of career professionals.

With Gonzales' recent resignation, however, Senate Democrats should apply as much pressure as possible on the White House to nominate someone, who for the next 17 months, will properly staff, manage, and resource this once prestigious division with committed professionals to enforce the nation's civil rights laws.

Nominees who are not interested in restoring public confidence in this once highly respected division and making civil rights enforcement of the following areas a top priority should be flatly rejected:

Voting. Vigorous enforcement of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act should be a top priority for the next Attorney General. This means that policies that intimidate voters and diminish rather than increase voter participation from racial, ethnic and language minorities should be abandoned in favor of a non-discriminatory approach. Draconian enforcement of voter ID laws are a waste of time and resources, especially given its virtual non-existence.

Housing. Under Alberto Gonzales, enforcement of the nation's landmark fair housing laws have languished. The next attorney general should enforce these laws while providing special attention to promoting integration in federally funded housing programs. This will require cracking down on discriminatory housing practices, and ensuring equal access to credit, particularly for low and middle-income borrowers.

Employment Discrimination. Actively defending affirmative action programs and energetic enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in the workplace are a must to protect the rights of people of color and women and to promote diversity. This includes jobs in the public and private sector. Thus far, the Justice Department under the Bush administration has utterly neglected aggressively enforcing such laws.

Education. In the wake of the recent Supreme Court rulings on school integration, it is imperative that the Justice Department work with school districts to ensure every child has access to a quality education. The Justice Department can offer guidance to the many school districts that are considering abandoning current integration plans to avoid future legal battles. If school districts abandon wholesale their integration plans, the nation could witness an acceleration in the recent surge of re-segregation of our nation's schools.

Law enforcement accountability.
Justice officials should work with local police departments in prosecuting hate crimes and ensuring racial profiling, along with other forms of police misconduct, are no longer tolerated.

Immigration. Immigration courts should be staffed with experienced professionals with expertise in immigration law not merely GOP loyalists. Additionally, a desire to "streamline" the backlog of immigration cases should not serve as an excuse to deport thousands of immigrants for minor violations, such as overstaying a visa. Moreover, immigration cases should be handled judiciously and devoid of partisanship.

Perhaps, it's unlikely that the Bush administration will nominate someone who is progressive enough to commit to all of the priorities outlined above, but Senate Democrats are in a position to restore the integrity of the civil rights division by making a case for their importance. The victories on civil rights have been too hard fought for the White House to nominate and the Senate rubber stamp someone who will continue to subvert the law or ineffectually enforce it.

On September 5, 2007, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights will launch a new website called as part of a campaign to highlight the history of the civil rights division and its recent demise during the Bush administration. I encourage all of you to visit it when it launches.

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Posted at 12:00 PM, Aug 29, 2007 in Civil Justice | Civil Rights | Immigration | Voting Rights
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