Holder's Comments on Race Prompt Requests for Legal Help
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s emphatic public comments on racial equality since he took office have prompted several plaintiffs to ask the Justice Department to intercede in employment discrimination cases and civil rights disputes, according to interviews and court filings.
Among the most well known of the petitioners is Donald Rochon, who 20 years ago became the first black FBI agent to tangle publicly with the agency over racism within its ranks. Rochon ultimately won a landmark $1 million financial settlement after he blew the whistle to lawmakers about his alleged mistreatment. That opened the door for lawsuits by other black employees, which transformed the way the bureau handles discrimination complaints.
Now Rochon is again clashing with the FBI, this time in a complicated disagreement over his retirement benefits. Rochon and his lawyers have written Holder seeking help, citing the attorney general's February speech in honor of Black History Month in which he called for "a more open discussion" of race.
"We're hopeful that with a new administration, a new attorney general who in our view made a very courageous speech about race relations, that things will change for both Don and more broadly," said Michael Rubin, a lawyer at Arnold & Porter who is handling Rochon's case pro bono. "But we don't think that things will change on their own."
Since he was sworn in three months ago, Holder has called for a public dialogue about race relations and has appeared at events honoring civil rights leaders across the South. Today he will appear at a lunch paying tribute to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and focusing on the group's role in the struggle for equal rights.
Other people suing government agencies and contractors over alleged civil rights violations have also lodged similar requests, underscoring the lofty expectations for the nation's first black attorney general.
For example, lawyers for a defense contracting company asked the Justice Department to intervene and support them with court briefs in an appeals court case. They want to overturn a lower-court ruling that they say could make it harder for plaintiffs to proceed with race-discrimination allegations.
In interviews, they pointed to a Holder speech in which he said: "One cannot truly understand America without understanding the historical experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the heart of this country, one must examine its racial soul."
Career lawyers at the department decided not to weigh in on the contracting case, which has yet to be argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The company, Worldwide Network Services, did win support from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Urban League. But its advocates say they are disappointed that the Obama administration did not lend its voice to the effort.
Patricia A. Millett, a lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who represents the contracting company, said the decision by the department's civil rights division raises the question, "Do the actions match the words?"
"This is what I thought the civil rights division was supposed to do," she said. "It is important that these matters, which mean so much to individuals, not get lost amid all the other pressing issues before the administration."
At the same time, Holder's actions on a different issue with racial implications have drawn praise. Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, pointed out that Holder dispatched to Capitol Hill the chief of the department's criminal division last month to express the administration's desire to reform cocaine sentencing laws that have led to long prison terms for black offenders.
And department leaders are meeting regularly in a high-level task force to consider ways to adjust the sentencing disparity for people convicted of carrying crack versus powder cocaine.
"They did take a very public stand," Price said. "Certainly the administration has made the connection that this is a civil rights issue."
Alejandro Miyar, a department spokesman, noted that the administration's 2010 budget requests additional funding for the civil rights division, and he said the department "is already hard at work enforcing our nation's civil rights laws, vigorously and fairly. . . . The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the civil rights of all Americans."
For Rochon, a former Los Angeles police detective who became one of the FBI's first black special agents in 1981, his experience at the agency has taken on a deeply personal meaning. Rochon said he was mistreated while stationed in Omaha and Chicago in the 1980s, including receiving written death threats and a photo of a black man whose face had been brutalized.
"In my case, this was about me and my family," Rochon said in a recent telephone interview. And in his continuing fight to get the retirement benefits he believes he deserves, he said, "I'm just defending my own dignity."