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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."

The challenge will likely fall to Tom Perez, a former Maryland politician and civil rights lawyer who is Obama's nominee to head the civil rights division. Seven months after Perez was nominated, his confirmation remains held up in a power play in the Senate that both sides say has little to do with Perez.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) asked Senate Republicans to delay Perez's confirmation after the Department of Justice reduced charges in a case of alleged voter intimidation against the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia that was filed in the waning days of the Bush administration. Smith called the decision "possible political interference."

Agreeing with Smith, Hans von Spakovsky, a top lawyer in the civil rights division during the Bush years, said that on Holder's watch "politics has been behind one decision after another," and that the former president's appointees "brought a balance, which hadn't been there before."

Justice department officials are now looking into the decision to reduce the charges in the New Black Panther case. Meanwhile, Perez's nomination remains stalled.

Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the department, said the attorney general's goal is to return the department to a traditional civil rights agenda. Founded in 1957 to enforce anti-discrimination laws, lawyers from the Justice Department's civil rights division were a key part of the civil rights movement. Over the years, the division has since seen its responsibilities grow beyond voting rights to housing, employment and disability discrimination.

When Angela Ciccolo, interim general counsel of the NAACP, heard Holder say the "civil rights division is once again open for business" at a luncheon earlier this year, she stood to her feet and applauded. But what she also wants to hear is that, while the division moves forward, the unresolved cases of the past eight years will not be forgotten. The organization's chapter in Florida is still seeking a resolution to the three-year long federal review of the case of Martin Lee Anderson, the 14-year-old who died after collapsing at the state-run boot camp. And the NAACP chapter in Florence wants concerns about violations of voting laws -- outlined in Madie Robinson's letters -- addressed.

"These are serious issues," Ciccolo said. "We will be looking for them to be taken seriously."

The backlog of civil rights complaints, however, along with the delay in Perez's confirmation, is making action on important cases slow-going, said John Amaya, a former Justice Department lawyer who now works on immigration issues at the National Council of La Raza.

He pointed to the case of Luis Ramirez, the Mexican man who was beaten by the football players 14 months ago in the Shenandoah street fight.

In May, following a week-long trial, a local jury acquitted two of the defendants of all charges except for simple assault, a second-degree misdemeanor. Neither received more than seven months in jail. Another was tried as a juvenile and received probation. The last cooperated with the Justice Department, pleaded guilty in federal court and awaits sentencing.

The Justice Department began monitoring the case more than a year ago and, according to Holder, is continuing to review the incident. Growing impatient, representatives of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund hand-delivered two boxes of petitions with 50,000 signatures to Justice Department officials in June asking that the teens be charged under the federal hate crimes law.

Holder mentioned the department's review to the Hispanic lawyers group this month, indicating to them that the case is a priority for the civil rights division.

Amaya wants more action. The civil rights division has "launched a number of investigations" into alleged hate crimes against Latinos, he said. "Now we just want to see them concluded."

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