Obama's Justice Department Renews Civil Rights Fight

Eric Holder has made fighting discrimination a priority.

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It is a telling reflection of the priorities of the last president that one of the few civil rights cases before the nation's high court this year was a reverse discrimination case. A group of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., ultimately prevailed before the court, arguing that they were unfairly denied promotion as a result of affirmative action gone awry. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor had voted with her colleagues on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a lower court ruling in the case.

The Obama Justice Department supported New Haven in the case, a sharp departure from the past eight years, which saw the government pursue a growing number of these reverse discrimination cases, even as traditional civil rights cases declined.

Eric Holder, the country's first black attorney general, made his priorities clear from Day 1, telling department employees that the United States is a nation of "cowards" when it comes to issues of race. The Obama administration is widely expected to prosecute discrimination and civil rights cases more vigorously than its predecessor. Civil rights cases, which tend to be controversial and divisive, have traditionally focused on voting rights, housing, and employment matters but can cover all kinds of discrimination, from race to religion to disabilities.

The renewed focus on civil rights comes at a particularly pivotal moment because of the upcoming 2010 census. The updated population figures are used to conduct a comprehensive redrawing of political districts that will most likely be hotly contested, and the data also are used to monitor and enforce civil rights laws in areas like housing, lending, education, and voting.

Beyond the census, issues like racial profiling and police abuse are expected to receive new attention under Obama. Indeed, one of the first civil rights cases filed by the new attorney general came against a former Texas police officer accused of racially profiling Hispanic motorists. In addition, the Justice Department is likely to back new laws to make voter registration more uniform, congressional staffers say.

Holder has a lot of work ahead of him. Under George W. Bush, the Justice Department was better known as a battleground between political appointees and career civil servants than for its frontline work in civil rights litigation. It took six years, the controversial firing of nine U.S. attorneys, and Democratic control of Congress for a series of investigations to reveal numerous instances of inappropriate politicization.

By the end of two terms, the Bush administration had altered the mission of the Justice Department's legendary Civil Rights Division. Between 2001 and 2005, the division brought only a single case of employment discrimination (a reverse discrimination case, like that of the Connecticut firefighters) and no cases of voter discrimination on behalf of African-Americans. Instead, resources were directed toward immigration enforcement, human trafficking, and issues of religious free speech, all of which had traditionally been handled by other divisions.

"Racial balancing." In his budget, Obama included an 18 percent boost in funding for the Civil Rights Division. But the office could face an uphill battle because of the large number of conservative federal judges appointed over the past eight years. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, for instance, is an outspoken opponent of "racial balancing." In March, the high court ruled that certain oversight provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act don't automatically apply in voting districts where minorities make up less than one half of the population.

This term, the Supreme Court also ruled in a Texas case that election procedures in 16 states should still be subject to federal supervision under the Voting Rights Act. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, whose state's elections are currently supervised by the Justice Department, says Obama's election shows why the protections afforded to minority voters are no longer needed. For his part, Obama has pledged to "reinvigorate federal civil rights enforcement," in particular, prosecuting more cases of voting discrimination against blacks.