Will the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice fulfill its historic mission of enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws under the Trump Administration?
This was the question addressed at the National Press Club on September 7 by four former heads of the Division—Stephen J. Pollak (1965-1969), Stan Pottinger (1970-1977), John Dunne (1990-1993), and Vanita Gupta (2014-2016)—two Republicans and two Democrats. Predictably, the Republicans minimized the danger of the current situation whereas the Democrats sounded an alarm about the deterioration of civil rights enforcement at DOJ under Jeff Sessions.
The panel was held on the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which gave birth to the Civil Rights Division. Congress passed the ’57 Act to enforce the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision requiring the desegregation of public schools across the US.
While politics have always influenced the priorities of the Civil Rights Division, both Republican and Democratic appointees heading the Division have supported its core mission—to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws. But is that still true?
Steve Pollack, now director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, described the current situation as “beyond disheartening” and warned that “the prior unity of purpose [across partisan lines] has apparently collapsed.” Vanita Gupta, now president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said she was “deeply alarmed about the state of civil rights enforcement across the government.” Pollack and Gupta expressed particular concern about civil rights enforcement in the areas of voting rights, police violence, LGBT rights, disability rights and employment discrimination.
Stan Pottinger, however, minimized the threats posed to civil rights enforcement by the Trump administration, saying to members of the press in the audience “do not be so literal with everything you hear, things that you hear are political statements, many of them are metaphors as opposed to literal policy statements,” instead “watch what the Civil Rights Division does.”
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Okay then, let’s look at what the DOJ has done since the Trump administration took power.
Under Obama, DOJ strongly supported the NAACP’s challenge to Texas’ draconian voter ID law, which threatens to disenfranchise as many as 600,000 voters, most of them Black and Latinx Texans. But earlier this year, Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions abandoned its support for the case, despite a trial court’s finding that the law was intentionally discriminatory. In April, Sessions attempted to delay a consent decree with the Baltimore police after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Sessions has also reversed Obama-era policies to prohibit transgender discrimination and to reduce federal reliance on private prisons. The impact of these policy reversals on communities will be “widespread and deeply felt,” says Gupta.
Yet, stunningly, Pottinger says, “If you have the law behind you and you have an Assistant Attorney General who respects the law,” he said, “do not get too overly depressed.”
But we should be depressed. Why? Because the current acting head of the Civil Rights Division is John M. Gore—who, before taking office, defended Virginia’s restrictive voter ID law, Florida’s efforts to purge its voting rolls and North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” prohibiting transgender people from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.
Trump’s recent nomination of corporate attorney Eric Drieband to lead the Civil Rights Division is no more likely to respect the civil rights of our country’s most vulnerable citizens. A former football player, Drieband has spent his career defending employers from race and sex discrimination claims. According to the Congressional Black Caucus, choosing Dreiband “follows President Trump’s agenda of tapping the fox to guard the henhouse.”
Nevertheless, Gupta is still optimistic. Her hope lies in the staff at DOJ—the “heart and soul” of civil rights enforcement—who are not political appointees but are dedicated civil servants. These nearly 700 career employees, she says, who enforce the nation’s civil rights law with tremendous “zeal, integrity and commitment” and make DOJ a “deeply resilient institution.” However, she expressed concern about the “politicization of their work” and the impact of DOJ leadership on the ability of career employees to enforce civil rights laws without interference.
“It is a time where the work on the outside is as critical as ever,” says Gupta, especially the work of non-profit organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Employment Law Project that litigate and advocate to hold government officials accountable for enforcing the rule of law. “We are going to get through this,” she said, “because people [outside of government] are doing what we can to ensure that American values and the rule of law are being maintained.”
“This work has never been anything but upstream,” adds Gupta. “Our progress in this country has never been linear, it has taken fits and starts, and none of it has been inevitable. The institutions don’t exist without people constantly pushing to ensure that the rule of law is maintained and that people are able to do the jobs that they’ve been given to do by Congress… It’s incumbent on all of us to do what we can to protect the institution.”