The continuing struggle for voting rights
People fill Pennsylvania Department of Transportation office in Philadelphia, waiting to get a voter ID card, September 27, 2012. Younger Americans, the poor and minorities are most likely to be unable to vote under new state laws for photo IDs, analysis of poll data shows. REUTERS/Tom Mihalek
The inspector general for the Justice Department, Michael Horowitz, recently issued a report recommending that the Civil Rights Division should no longer favor applicants who have demonstrated an interest in civil rights or “the enforcement of civil rights laws.”
This report ignited debate because the Senate is now taking up the nomination of Tom Perez, the division’s current head, to serve as secretary of labor, and the Supreme Court is pondering a challenge to the constitutionality of Section 5, a key part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). It also comes out as the Republican Party is seeking urgently to rebrand itself to appeal to minority voters.
Though the report says nothing that should affect Perez’s confirmation or the court’s impending decision on the Voting Rights Act, it speaks volumes about the damage the Republican Party has inflicted on minority interests. It also highlights the party’s dilemma in trying to rehabilitate its standing with minority voters.
The report rejects conservative complaints about the Voting Section’s enforcement of the law and its recent hiring record. Its recommendation to avoid hiring lawyers dedicated to enforcing the civil rights laws, however, adopts the belief held by conservative ideologues that vigorous civil rights enforcement is unacceptably liberal.
The entire report illuminates the GOP’s ideological dead-end. It was generated by conservative activists working through Republican members of the House of Representatives. Their agenda is to impede enforcement of the Voting Rights Act on behalf of minorities; portray whites as victims of discrimination by minorities, and have the GOP-appointed justices of the Supreme Court throw out Section 5, which requires that jurisdictions with histories of entrenched discrimination seek approval from Washington before making any change in election procedures, as unconstitutional.
No amount of rebranding can make that agenda appealing to minority voters – as Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other Republican leaders are now learning.
The Justice Department’s Voting Section enforces the 1965 Voting Rights Act, enacted initially to address the massive and brutal disenfranchisement of many African-Americans. The act has proven so successful and so necessary that Congress has repeatedly reauthorized it, most recently in 2006 for 25 years. This action, however, did not sit well with conservatives. They want to end the Section 5 requirement.
The Supreme Court is now considering Shelby County, Alabama’s challenge to the constitutionality of this requirement. The county lost in the lower courts, but asked the high court to overturn Congress’s nearly unanimous judgment that the law remains necessary.
Conservative Republicans have long opposed full enforcement of federal civil rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act. President Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully resisted amendments to strengthen the Voting Rights Act in 1982, with strong support from the young John Roberts, then an attorney in the department of justice and now chief justice of the Supreme Court. Reagan’s Justice Department, under Attorney General Edwin Meese, published documents rejecting key Supreme Court cases upholding provisions of the act.
Top officials from the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations have now filed a brief in the pending Supreme Court case urging the court to strike down Section 5.
The Republican effort to generate the inspector general’s report is the latest chapter in this continuing struggle. Since 2009, conservative activists have been trying to generate outrage over an incident involving two clownish members of the ephemeral New Black Panther Party. These men stood outside a polling place in a largely African-American precinct in Philadelphia on Election Day 2008.
Though no voter reported feeling intimidated, the Bush Justice Department rushed to file civil suits against the men, the national party and its leader. After the election, the career attorneys leading the Civil Rights Division before Perez arrived dismissed the complaints against three of the four defendants for lack of evidence.
But conservatives who had worked in the Bush Civil Rights Division charged the dismissals were politically motivated and showed that the division refused to sue African-Americans. Representative Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the subcommittee that controls the Justice Department’s appropriations and other House Republican members listened and demanded that the inspector general investigate.
The report rejected the conservatives’ allegations, confirming that the career attorneys properly dismissed the Bush complaints. But the inspector general also examined more broadly the Voting Section’s operation since the start of the George W. Bush administration. Though it found that the section had been thrown into turmoil by Bush appointees, the IG then contorted the results to extend the causes of disruption into the Obama administration.
This report is a disturbing example that the effort to seek balance over truth, which often infects the media, has crept into government investigations. The report promotes a false equivalence between the unlawful conduct of the Bush administration and the unfortunate reactions of a few career employees. It concludes darkly – and with scant evidence – that the Voting Section today remains divided by ideological conflict and afflicted by lapses in professionalism.
The story is much simpler, however. Turmoil erupted soon after the Bush Civil Rights Division put hiring responsibility and supervision of voting rights enforcement in the hands of Bradley Schozman.* The inspector general found in a 2009 report that Schlozman used illegal hiring practices that considered ideology and partisanship; wrongly transferred employees he didn’t consider conservative enough, and drove attorneys out of the division.
Schlozman, in one email, referred to voting section attorneys as “mold spores” and stated: “My tentative plans are to gerrymander all of those crazy libs right out of the [voting] section.” After leaving, he wrote: “It has been months since I felt the need to scream with a blood-curdling cry at some commie, partisan subordinate (i.e., most of the [voting] section staff until recently).” He added that “bitchslapping a bunch of [Civil Rights Division] attorneys really did get the blood pumping and was even enjoyable once in a while.”
The inspector general found that Schlozman had violated the Civil Service Reform Act, made false statements to Congress and was unfit for federal service. Frustration boiled over when Schlozman and his ideological hires resisted enforcing the law on behalf of minorities and aggressively pushed the department to file its first voting rights lawsuit against black officials in Mississippi for discrimination against white voters. The report then noted that a few career employees responded inappropriately to these Republican assaults through leaks and harassment.
While those actions warrant rebuke, they are as understandable as a basketball player committing a foul in retaliation to a deliberate poke in the eye. The IG report fails to consider the full impact of the abuse on individuals who had spent their careers enforcing the law.
Schlozman and two Bush-era hires have now rubbed salt in the wound by joining the brief filed by Republican former Justice Department officials that is urging the Supreme Court to strike down Section 5 – the very law they were once charged with enforcing.
Almost comically, the inspector general’s report ignores the 2009 finding of his predecessor that a key component of Schlozman’s politicization of the hiring process was to eliminate the longstanding preference for applicants with civil rights experience and a demonstrated interest in civil rights enforcement. Schlozman, according to the 2009 report, justified his change in policy by stating: “I just want to make sure we don’t start confining ourselves to, you know, politburo members because they happen to be a member of some, you know, psychopathic, left-wing organization designed to overthrow the government.”
Republicans have long defined enforcement of civil-rights statutes as an ideologically liberal undertaking. The inspector general has now legitimized this view by expressing concern that hiring applicants with a demonstrated interest in civil rights enforcement will result in liberal hires.
But the mission of the Civil Rights Division is to enforce the laws as enacted by Congress and interpreted by the courts. It is the division’s duty to hire attorneys who have experience and interest in enforcing those laws. Whether these criteria, central to the division’s mission, produce liberal or conservative lawyers should not be the IG’s concern.
Not surprisingly, the Voting Section has taken time to recover from the turmoil inflicted by the Bush administration and the politically motivated hiring that corrupted its career ranks. The report provides little detail about its current state. Under Perez’s leadership, it regained its strength.
The past two years have been the section’s most productive ever. During the presidential campaign, the section blocked attempts by Texas and South Carolina to impose racially discriminatory photo ID requirements; convinced a court that Texas’s redistricting plans discriminated on the basis of race, and successfully fended off attacks on the VRA’s constitutionality, while also spending hundreds of hours responding to the IG’s demands for interviews and documents.
The report crystallizes the GOP’s dilemma as it attempts to rebrand itself. Unless it makes major reforms to its civil rights agenda, it will not appeal to minority voters. If the GOP wants to broaden its appeal, it must acknowledge the sins of the past and embrace the role of the law in ensuring that all people can participate equally in society. It can start by ending its resistance to full enforcement of the civil rights laws passed by Congress.
*This piece was corrected. Due to an editing error, Bradley Schlozman’s job at the time of his actions was misidentified and and the scope of his actions was incorrectly described.
PHOTO (Insert): U.S. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez (R) listens as President Barack Obama (L) introduces him to be his next labor secretary, at the White House in Washington, March 18, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Erns
PHOTO (Insert B):President Reagan with Ed Meese in the Oval Office, October 1981. REUTERS/Courtesy Reagan Library
PHOTO (Insert C): U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts listens to arguments from George Washington University law students at a moot court in Washington, February 9, 2006. REUTERS/Jim Young
PHOTO (Insert D): President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. In the White House. Courtesy of LBJ Presidential Library.
PHOTO (Insert E): John Lewis (on right in trench coat) and Hosea Williams (on the left) lead marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis was brutally beaten by police, March 7, 1965. REUTERS/Library of Congress/Courtesy Representative John Lewis