Justice Dept. to Address Backlog of Civil Rights Complaints

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009; 3:19 PM

There is the ongoing review of the death of a man beaten by four white teenagers in a park in Shenandoah, Pa. The kids, all high school football players, shouted, "Go back to Mexico," before one punched him repeatedly with a metal shank balled up in his fist, according to witnesses. Then, another kicked him on the left side of his head so hard that the Mexican man's brain began to swell. He died two days later, his fiancee weeping at his side.

There is the continuing silence three years after hundreds took to the streets of Tallahassee, protesting the acquittal of seven guards in the death of a 14 year-old black boy, one of whom gave a quick knee to the boy's stomach as another forced him to inhale smelling salts. The grainy black-and-white video of the boy collapsing on a grassy field in a state-run boot camp for delinquents is set to music and posted on YouTube -- a hovering reminder of a death still in dispute.

And there are the unanswered letters that fill the file drawer in Madie Robinson's office. The president of the NAACP branch in Florence, S.C., has kept a copy of every complaint she's mailed to the U.S. Department of Justice since 2003 -- a half-dozen in all -- every letter another plea for federal officials to look into voting practices that she and other NAACP members think are suspicious.

The ongoing look into the beaten man's case, the federal review promised to the Tallahassee protesters and Robinson's letters are somewhere in the backlog of concerns waiting as the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division -- once the nation's premier protectors of minorities' rights -- is rebuilt.

Their issues are wrapped up in what is a top concern for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who has pledged to make the division his department's "crown jewel" by returning its focus to protecting minorities from discrimination. What becomes of these cases, and others like them, will help determine the meaning of justice in the Obama administration.

Under the Bush administration, it was "destroyed," said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who criticized the shift away from the department's traditional civil rights focus to a more expansive agenda that included prosecuting complaints of religious discrimination and human trafficking. Independent investigations by the Office of the Inspector General also found that the civil rights division during the years that George W. Bush was president had been plagued with political hiring scandals and racial insults, further straining the department's already icy relationship with civil rights veterans.

"The [civil rights] division is just sort of a relic of what it used to be," said Payton, who once considered it a partner in the work of righting racial wrongs. Holder "needs to restore the morale. It is a monumental task before him."

Holder has said he recognizes the size of the task. In his 2010 budget, he requested an additional $22 million for civil rights work, creating 54 new legal positions and bringing the staff up to 399 lawyers. He told members of the Hispanic Bar Association earlier this month that he holds to a promise he made during his confirmation hearings that "the civil rights division would fight discrimination as fiercely as the criminal division fights crime -- and that we would once again honor the spirit of the movement that inspired its creation. . . . Although much work lies ahead, we are well on our way."

Holder also told the bar association what he's said pointedly to the NAACP and others this year: "Let me say this very clearly: The civil rights division is once again open for business."

Some former staff members say those words have weight. They have spoken of deep damage done to the Justice Department's civil rights work by its previous leadership, which filed only one discrimination case on behalf of a black voter from 2001 to 2006 and, through a series of hires, systematically placed lawyers ideologically aligned with the Bush administration -- some with little to no civil rights experience -- in permanent civil rights jobs. More than half of the division's career lawyers left in the past eight years, some taking decades of expertise with them.

Joe Rich was one of them. He worked in the civil rights division from 1968 to 2005, and finally walked away after all of his responsibilities as chief of the voting rights section were steadily steered away.

"We were considered to be wild-eyed liberals, and they were trying to drive us out," said Rich, who is now director of the fair housing project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "You've got a group of people there now that are not experienced in civil rights enforcement and who often had some hostility to civil rights enforcement. It will be a management challenge in how to deal with people like that."

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