Civil rights division takes higher profile at Justice

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post / June 27, 2010

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WASHINGTON — When Thomas E. Perez took over the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in October, he found an office that was a shadow of its historic self.

Nearly 70 percent of the lawyers had left between 2003 and 2007, amid 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,’’ which the official denied. Civil rights groups said the unit had lost its traditional focus.

“We had to do some healing,’’ said Perez, 48, a former Maryland official and deputy assistant attorney general under Republican and Democratic presidents. “We had to restore the partnership between the career staff and the political leadership. And frankly, certain civil rights laws were not being enforced.’’

Justice Department officials say the division — created in 1957 to help the Freedom Riders and students seeking to integrate public schools — has stepped up enforcement of employment, disability rights, and other antidiscrimination laws.

Hate crimes and police misconduct are a renewed focus, and several section chiefs from the 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.

Recently, the division has taken a leading role in preparing for an Obama administration lawsuit against Arizona over the state’s new immigration law.

Officials could not provide overall comparisons with the first 17 months of the previous administration, but in employment discrimination, for example, the Justice Department under President Obama filed 29 cases through March 20. One case was filed during the same period in the Bush administration.