The Civil Rights Division Two Years into My Tenure
Thomas E. Perez
In 2009 when I took the reins at the Civil Rights Division, I made a commitment to division staff and to the nation that I would work to restore and transform the division that Attorney General Eric Holder has called a “crown jewel” of the Justice Department.
With the support of President Obama and Attorney General Holder, we have worked to revitalize our ability to enforce our nation’s critical civil rights laws. We have reformed our hiring practices to ensure we hire only the most qualified applicants for the job. We have worked to boost morale among a dedicated and passionate workforce. And we have found great success.
We filed a record number of criminal civil rights cases in Fiscal Year 2009, and then topped that record in Fiscal Year 2010, including charging the largest human trafficking case in Justice Department history. We have ramped up efforts to combat hate crimes, and we are working hard to implement the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Passed in 2009, the law was years in the making, and allows us to prosecute hate crimes committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, or disability. The new law provided us with critical new tools to combat hate-fueled violence, and we have brought several cases under the Act.
In August 2011, we secured the guilty pleas of the first defendants to be charged under the Act. The defendants in this case took advantage of a young man’s mental disability and assaulted him because he is Native American. They took him to their apartment, where they defaced his body with white supremacist and anti-Native American symbols, and used a wire hanger heated on a stove to brand a swastika into his skin. They exploited his disability to try to cover up their actions, and then lied to law enforcement officials investigating the case. Crimes like this not only hurt victims and their families—they tear apart entire communities.
We have also ramped up efforts to bring justice in cases of police misconduct. In August, in a landmark prosecution by our Criminal Section, five New Orleans Police Department officers were convicted of crimes related to the police-involved shooting on the Danziger Bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in which two civilians died and four others were wounded. Five additional officers had previously pled guilty to related charges.
Recognizing systemic problems in the New Orleans Police Department, the division conducted one of the most extensive pattern or practice reviews ever of a law enforcement agency, and is now working with city officials, the police department and the community to develop a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform of the police department. Subsequently, the division completed a similarly extensive review of the Puerto Rico Police Department. Our goal in this work is to ensure communities have police departments that reduce crime, ensure respect for the Constitution, and earn the trust of the public they are charged with protecting.
We continue to fight for equal opportunity in education, so that all children can receive the quality education to which they have a right. In 2010, the division reached a settlement with a Louisiana school district to resolve the fact that the district was not offering a single Advanced Placement class at a high school that was 100 percent African American. About 83 percent of the district’s student body is African American, and about 12 percent of its students are White. The district has two high schools—one that is 100 percent African American and one that is about 56 percent African American. And yet the 100 percent African-American school had only five Gifted and Honors courses, compared to more than 70 AP, Gifted, and Honors courses at the school attended by nearly all of the district’s White students. Such differences were determined unconstitutional more than five decades ago in perhaps the most well known Supreme Court ruling in our nation’s history, Brown vs. the Board of Education, and yet we still struggle to create truly equal educational environments for all students.
Meanwhile, students in school today too often face a different kind of discrimination—in the form of pervasive student-on-student harassment. We have seen recently the dire consequences that unrelenting harassment and bullying can have on students, and the Civil Rights Division is using its authority where it can to combat this pernicious problem.
In July, the division and the Department of Education reached a settlement agreement with the Tehachapi Unified School District in California to resolve an investigation into the harassment of Seth Walsh, a middle school student who committed suicide at the age of 13. The investigation found that Walsh had been the target of severe and pervasive harassment because of his failure to conform to gender stereotypes.
We also continue to see blatant housing discrimination in communities nationwide. In Fiscal Year 2010, the division obtained consent decrees or favorable judgments in 42 fair housing cases, including 26 with pattern or practice claims—the most pattern or practice settlements in 14 years. We reached the largest-ever settlement to resolve claims of rental discrimination in a case alleging discrimination against African Americans and Latinos. We settled a particularly egregious case of housing discrimination that involved a pattern of racial harassment and intimidation of African Americans by the building manager at a Kansas City apartment complex for the elderly and people with disabilities. The complex’s manager frequently used racial epithets directed toward African Americans and displayed nooses on the property to intimidate tenants. The case settled for $2.13 million, resolving claims on behalf of more than 40 current and former tenants.
We filed a lawsuit against the city of Joliet, Illinois, alleging that the city violated the Fair Housing Act by taking action to condemn the Evergreen Terrace apartment complex, which offers affordable housing. The action would displace more than 750 residents of the complex, more than 95 percent of whom are African American. Due to a dearth of affordable housing in and around Joliet, and because the city has failed to produce a meaningful plan to counteract the effect of eliminating 356 units of affordable housing, many of the residents would be left with nowhere in the city to live if the condemnation action is successful.
We are also addressing new challenges to equal housing and homeownership. Particularly as our nation recovers from the housing and foreclosure crisis, we are working to ensure that all individuals have equal access to credit, a fundamental building block of wealth and the American Dream. The explosion in subprime lending and the subsequent foreclosure crisis has threatened the stability of communities of color at far greater rates than their White counterparts. We created a dedicated fair lending unit to determine where discrimination occurred in the years leading up to the crisis, and to ensure such practices do not occur in the future.
The division reached the largest monetary settlement in a fair lending case in its history. The case involved two subsidiaries of AIG, which we discovered had partnered with brokers that had been charging African-American borrowers higher fees than similarly situated White borrowers on wholesale loans in areas across the country.
In bringing this case, we used disparate impact theory, a critical tool in our law enforcement arsenal—a tool that has been accepted unanimously by the courts and that the career staff was discouraged from using in cases of this nature for many years—but one that we’ve dusted off and are using again.
More recently, we announced a settlement with a bank in Detroit to resolve a classic case of redlining, where the bank failed to offer credit in the city’s African-American neighborhoods. Such practices perpetuate and exacerbate residential segregation, denying entire communities equal opportunities.
We also continue efforts to ensure every individual has equal opportunities in the workplace.
We challenged New York City’s use of two written examinations for hiring entry-level firefighters, which we argued had a disparate impact on African-American and Hispanic applicants. At the time the Civil Rights Division filed its lawsuit, barely 7 percent of firefighters in New York were Black or Latino, even though minorities make up nearly 50 percent of the qualified pool of candidates. This was actually a lower percent of African Americans and Hispanics than worked for the New York City Fire Department in 1972.
A federal judge concluded that the fire department’s policies had been discriminatory. In fact, the court ruled that the practices constituted discrimination under both disparate impact theory and the intent standard. We continue to work to ensure that the city develops hiring policies that give all applicants a fair shot.
In 2011, we continue to see a need for enforcement of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Our Voting Section is in the midst of intensive efforts to review the thousands of redistricting plans that are being submitted for review in the current round of redistricting, all while handling the busiest case docket in the past decade and defending the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
In addition, the division has launched an initiative to ensure compliance with the National Voter Registration Act. We have brought the first two lawsuits in seven years to enforce Section 7 of the law, which requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at agencies offering public assistance and services to persons with disabilities.
Our disability rights practice has been taken to new heights. We have ramped up enforcement of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Olmstead, joining or initiating litigation or issuing findings letters to assure community-based services for persons with disabilities in more than 35 matters in 20 states, including reaching comprehensive settlement agreements with Georgia and Delaware. By comparison, during the previous administration, the division filed a single amicus brief in an Olmstead case.
We have also revitalized our enforcement efforts in other areas that languished in the previous administration. We have doubled the rate of amicus briefs filed in federal courts of appeals. We have opened 20 civil investigations under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, and filed eight complaints under the Act—compared to just one civil FACE Act case in the eight years of the previous administration.
We have ramped up efforts to protect the rights of service members and their families. We reached the largest-ever settlement under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, ensuring Bank of America/Countrywide will pay $20 million to resolve allegations that they illegally foreclosed upon servicemembers without court orders. In two and a half years, we filed more cases under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act than during the previous administration in the entire four years that the division had jurisdiction. And in 2010, we obtained agreements with 14 states or territories to protect voting rights under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, the most enforcement actions under a single statute ever taken by the Voting Section leading up to a federal election.
Meanwhile, though a decade has passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the backlash that has followed against Muslim and Arab Americans persists. Hate-fueled violence against Muslims remains intolerably high. In early 2011, a Texas man pleaded guilty to hate crimes charges after he set fire in 2010 to playground equipment at a mosque in Texas. It was the 50th prosecution of post-9/11 backlash crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans.
We have also seen a rise in opposition to mosque construction and expansion around the country. In late 2010, we filed an amicus brief in support of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that had been the target of intense community opposition. The county had approved construction of the mosque, and the case was brought by opponents in the community, arguing that Islam wasn’t a religion and therefore not protected by our nation’s laws.
These cases remind us that fear, ignorance and misunderstanding can breed widespread discrimination, hate, and intolerance. We are committed to ensuring that our Arab and Muslim American neighbors can feel at home in their communities.
The people among us who have yet to realize the greatest promise of our nation—the promise of equal justice and equal opportunity—are the reason I and my colleagues in the division get out of bed each morning. It is a great honor to work with the dedicated career attorneys and professionals in the division to protect and defend the rights guaranteed by some of our nation’s most cherished laws. We take very seriously our responsibility to carry the torch of the great civil rights pioneers who fought for those laws—and we honor their legacy by enforcing those laws aggressively and evenhandedly.
Thomas E. Perez is the assistant attorney general, Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.