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In December 2009, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lamented not that President Bush had politicized the Justice Department, but that he didn't politicize it enough.  But with its purge of U.S. attorneys, complicity in rubber-stamping detainee torture and blessing illegal domestic surveillance, the Bush administration's gutting of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division and the perversion of its mission often passed unnoticed.  Mercifully, under President Obama the agency is rising from the ashes.

As the Washington Post detailed Friday, the devastation of the Civil Right Division in George W. Bush's wake was staggering:

Nearly 70 percent of the lawyers had left between 2003 and 2007, a mass exodus that came during allegations the Bush administration was politicizing hiring. Internal watchdogs concluded that the division's former head had refused to hire lawyers he labeled "commies" and had transferred one for allegedly writing in "ebonics," allegations the official denied. Civil rights groups said the unit had lost its traditional civil rights focus.

But now, the Obama administration is resurrecting the agency created in 1957 to protect the Freedom Riders and students trying to integrate public schools.  The division has a renewed new focus on the enforcement of employment, disability rights and other anti-discrimination laws, and the resources to go along with it:

Hate crimes and police misconduct are a renewed focus, and several section chiefs from the George W. Bush era have left. More than 30 people have been or are about to be hired as part of an 18 percent budget increase this year, the largest in the division's history. It will bring in 102 new people.

And in recent weeks, the division has taken a leading role in preparing for a possible Obama administration lawsuit against Arizona over the state's new immigration law.

As division chief Thomas E. Perez put it, "We had some healing to do."  Perez added:

"We had to restore the partnership between the career staff and the political leadership. And frankly, certain civil rights laws were not being enforced."

Among those laws was something called the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Under President Bush, the Justice Department became an essential tool in the Republican strategy to suppress minority (read "Democratic") voter turnout through unprecedented redistricting, onerous registration hurdles, hyper-partisan prosecutors, polling place chicanery and draconian voter identification laws.  Two examples, one from Georgia and the other from Mississippi, reveal just how Attorney General Gonzales turned the mission of his Civil Rights Division on its head.

In March 2005, the GOP-controlled Georgia legislature passed a voter identification law. Nominally aimed at countering voter fraud, the transparent aim of this virtual poll tax is to suppress the African-American vote - and Democratic prospects - in the state, especially in Atlanta. The bill's sponsor, Augusta Republican Sue Burmeister explained that when black voters in her black precincts "are not paid to vote, they don't go to the polls."

Under the law, Georgia voters would have to present one of six officially recognized forms of identification. Those without driver's licenses would have to pay $20 a new digital ID card, available at motor vehicle offices in only 59 of Georgia's 159 counties.

The impact of the law as originally drafted would have been dramatic. The ACLU estimated that as many as 153,000 Georgians would be impacted (based on 2004 numbers); across the state, 231,000 households had no access to a car and 147,000 had no phone service.

Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 not only banned poll taxes, but mandated that Georgia and eight other southern states must submit proposed voting rules changes to the Justice Department for review of their impact on minority voters. This "pre-clearance" process allows DOJ to block laws and rule changes in the suspect states that would dilute minority voting.

Which is where the Bush Justice Department came in. As the Washington Post reported in November 2005, Bush political appointees overruled the overwhelming recommendation of DOJ career staff that the Georgia ID program be halted. In a 51-page memoon August 25, 2005, the Civil Rights Division review team voted 4-1 to block the Georgia law. The next day, however, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his aides overruled the carerr lawyers and granted pre-clearance.

After several court challenges blocked the Georgia law, a modified version eventually passed muster (much to the delight of the Bush Justice Department's resident voter suppression expert, Hans von Spakovsky).

In May 2006, President Bush's DOJ undertook one of its only actions to enforce the Voting Rights Act.  After Gonzales had previously refused to pursue enforcement in Georgia, Alabama and Texas, his Justice Department intervened in Mississippi - on behalf of white voters.

The DOJ argued that the African-American Democratic Executive Committee chairman in Noxubee County Ike Brown led an effort to suppress the vote of white residents.  And in June 2007, a federal judge agreed that white voters were subjected to discrimination based upon their race.

For his part, President Obama in his 2010 State of the Union address pledged to rehabilitate the Justice Department, promising that "My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination."  (By March 20, his CRD had 29 employment discrimination cases compared to just one during the same time frame during the Bush administration.)  His Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to make the division the department's "crown jewel."

But if the Obama administration is winning the battle to restore the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, it is losing the war in the courts.  In June 2006, the Supreme Court blessed Tom Delay's GOP-friendly redistricting plan in Texas.  In April 2008, the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Indiana's voter ID law, one which Judge Thomas Evans of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals argued "is a not-too-thinly veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic."  And last June, the Roberts Court in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder took the first steps towards eliminating the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act altogether.

On the same day that the Washington Post announced the rebirth of Civil Rights Division, its would-be assassin Alberto Gonzales resurfaced for a rare interview.  In the process of shopping his memoirs, the Texas Tech professor reflected:

"It's good to be back in Texas.  This part of the state is very much Bush country."

Thank God the same can no longer be said for the rest of America.

** Crossposted at Perrspectives **

Originally posted to Jon Perr on Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 10:45 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  God Obama is so much like Bush. (5+ / 0-)

    Thanks for the diary. I had not heard.

    "John McCain has rounded up and deported his principles." --- Jonathan Alter, Newsweek.

    by marabout40 on Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 10:52:51 AM PDT

  •  They also have uniformed officers. My experience. (14+ / 0-)

    I was holding a "Stop the Drug War" sign in the area designated for individual 1st Amendment activity alongside the line of Delegates and press waiting to present their credentials to enter the 2000 Democratic National Convention. I was also threatricaly loud.

    The LAPD officers got tired of my act and told me to move along. When I refused (there was no place else I was legal) they began to club me, prods at first, but eventually free swinging.

    After I'd taken 13 shots, a uniformed Civil rights Division officer arrived, and chastised the pair of ninja suited LAPD who'd been wailing on me. "I don't care what you do to him if you find him in an alley, but i've been assigned to protect his Civil Rights on this block.

    The terms of the settlement prohibit me from mentioning just how much the LA taxpayers forked out to resolve my Title 18 Section 1983 claim.

    The Internal Affairs complaint was denied (on Sept. 12, 2001, the worst news day ever) when the investigators decided they could not ascertain exactly which of the ~150 officers on the scene had administered the blows, as all were in unmarked riot gear, and none would talk.

    Q: How many Pentagon spokespersons does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: We're not prepared to discuss specific numbers at the present time.

    by ben masel on Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 11:17:57 AM PDT

  •  Good, that needs to be done and will surely be (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sberel, Larsstephens

    needed in this country the way things are going.

  •  OT Remember the Killer D's in 2003? (6+ / 0-)

    They were the 52 D's in the Texas House of Representatives who refused to vote in favor of the Delay-engineered redistricting plan.

    Rather than be compelled to vote, they left the state and hid out in Oklahoma, hoping to prevent Rick Perry from bringing it up for a vote.

    Those were fun days, exciting to follow the story as it developed.  IIRC some of us even donated to help them pay the cost of their motel bill.

    Link

    Don't tell me Democratic legislators can't stand up to Republicans and fight.  

    "Private health insurers always manage to stay one step ahead of the sheriff." Sen. Sherrod Brown

    by Betty Pinson on Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 11:49:38 AM PDT

  •  Obama is simply being competent... (6+ / 0-)

    which after bush seems like a bid deal.  Now if the JD would just enforce the law against the rich and powerful, which it has so far studiously, and thoroughly, avoided, then the credibility and value of the JD could be respected.

    Corporate PACs, not just bribery but a lifestyle!

    by rubine on Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 11:52:29 AM PDT

  •  still politicized (0+ / 0-)

    I will bellieve that the Civil Rights division is really revitalized when the Philadelphia New Black Panthers are prosecuted for voter intimidation.

    •  For What It's Worth... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sberel, Simplify, SciVo

      ...Thomas Perez had nothing to do with the New Black Panthers case.

      As the American Prospect wrote last fall when Republicans were holding up Perez' nomination:

      In short, Perez is something of a progressive's dream appointment -- he's fought for minority and worker rights, stood up to the mortgage-lending industry when few others predicted how their unscrupulous practices would lead to economic disaster, and perhaps most important, he's a career civil-rights attorney who is familiar with how the civil-rights division is supposed to work -- with an emphasis on the expertise of career attorneys, not the agendas of the political appointees who supervise them.

      Oddly, part of what seems to be holding up Perez's nomination is a case Perez had nothing to do with: the Justice Department's recent decision to dismiss a 2008 voter-intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party -- a decision now under internal investigation. Some attorneys in the Voting Rights Section see the case as part of the leftover politicization from the Bush years, while Republicans have used the case to argue that the department is now being politicized by Democrats.

      Perez's supporters argue that because he wasn't even employed by the Justice Department at the time, it's absurd to hold up his confirmation because of the Black Panther case. "It just shows you how political and specious the arguments against him are," says Henderson.

  •  Excellent diary A A, it sounds like... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sberel, Simplify, erratic, foufou

    pre-clearance can be opted out of by states now?  What does that mean, can the states legally suppress voters now?

    " But as Americans, and as a nation, we will not be terrorized. We will not cower in fear. We will not be intimidated." - President Obama, 5/4

    by BarackStarObama on Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 01:42:40 PM PDT

    •  All this means is that the war is on again, not (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sberel, BarackStarObama

      blocked from above. There will still be wars.

    •  More Background (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sberel, Simplify, SciVo, BarackStarObama

      As the ACLU noted about the Austin case:

      Under the Voting Rights Act, "political subdivisions" can "bail out" of the preclearance provision of Section 5 if they can demonstrate they have not discriminated against minority voters for a 10-year period. The Court today held that the municipal district in this case was a political subdivision entitled to seek a bailout. Because a successful bailout would enable the district to avoid the requirements of Section 5, the Court concluded that it was unnecessary for it to address the constitutionality of the preclearance requirements.

      "The district was, in effect, asking the Supreme Court to declare Section 5 unconstitutional because it has been so successful," said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "The Supreme Court declined that invitation. Moreover, by liberalizing the bailout provisions of the Voting Rights Act, today's decision makes it more difficult for jurisdictions covered by Section 5 to complain that there is no escape from its preclearance requirements."

      The Washington Post reported on the status of section 5 "pre-clearance" requirements and the bailout option after the Austin decision:

      The court said Congress's actions in extending Section 5 "raise serious constitutional questions," but Roberts wrote that "the importance of the question does not justify our rushing to decide it." Instead, the court made it clear that all political subdivisions covered by the act were free to make the case to federal officials for an exemption.

      So far, only 17 subdivisions of the 12,000 covered by the act -- all of them in Virginia, including Fairfax City -- have "bailed out" of Section 5's restrictive provisions.

      Ultimately, as the Post noted, "Experts said the key provision of the law appeared to have received more of a stay of execution than a reprieve."

  •  Thanks for this information. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    askew, ybruti, erratic, thoughtful3

    Tipped and rec'ed.

    "If you're in a coalition and you're comfortable, you know it's not a broad enough coalition" Bernice Johnson Reagon

    by Denise Oliver Velez on Sat Jun 05, 2010 at 02:49:34 PM PDT

  •  This is welcomed news. About time the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sberel

    President is getting around to doing this. It's just too bad that it took the mess in Arizona to move it to the forefront.

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