Since taking the helm of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in October, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez has set about refocusing the priorities of the division — giving higher priority to prosecution of hate crimes, for instance, and working to advance his “agenda of restoration and revitalization” as he described in remarks to Justice Department colleagues at his formal installation ceremony last November.
Perez has said that the Civil Rights Division, which Attorney General Eric Holder has called the crown jewel of the Justice Department, will return to its historical mission of addressing racial discrimination while also confronting the new civil rights challenges of the 21st century. Perez said he will implement new rules for hiring career civil service lawyers intended to protect the process from politics.
The Civil Rights Division head sat down with Main Justice in his office at the Justice Department on Friday:
Main Justice: Politicized hiring was one of the problems that plagued the Bush administration. One argument critics of the new hiring rules you put in place have made is that the qualifications for the Civil Rights Division attract liberal candidates. What can you do to make sure that political affiliations do not influence hiring decisions?
Perez: “Well it’s the law that hiring decisions are not made with regard to political affiliations and we have made it clear not simply through my words but in writing, we’ve established a hiring process, a policy that clearly sets forth what you can and can’t do in the process of hiring personnel, and that it is not a close call.
“When I served on the hiring committee of the administration of the elder Bush and under Bill Clinton, we had one charge: find the best candidates, period, and that’s what we did and that’s what we’re doing now, and we’ve reduced that to writing, so that what occurred in the prior administration never occurs again.”
MJ: You’ve said that your office is dusting off disparate impact theory, most recently with the case filed in New Jersey. Do you think the courts have agreed with the theory?
Perez: “Every court that’s looked at disparate impact theory — in the housing context and in the employment context and in the voting context — have upheld the viability of disparate impact theory. So it’s clear that this is an arrow in our quiver as we move forward, but it is an arrow that indeed gathered dust so that’s why it’s so important whether it’s in New Jersey or in New York City, where a judge recently granted summary judgment in the New York firefighters case.
“That case is a remarkable set of facts. African-Americans and Latinos in New York City comprise over 50 percent of the police force. They comprise somewhere in the vicinity of 60 percent of the corrections personnel in the city, and firefighters, it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 7 percent. The judge not only found evidence of not only disparate impact in their hiring procedures, but also disparate treatment in that case.
“So I think it’s very important, and that case illustrates that the discrimination that we’d like to say is a thing of the past continues to persist and it’s critically important that our essential services personnel — firefighters, police officers, corrections officers — are the most qualified people and are not victims of discrimination. That’s why we’ll continue to use disparate impact theory whether it’s in fair lending, whether it’s in hiring or whether it’s in voting if the facts support it.”
MJ: I understand your office has taken on a role in regard to defending the government in cases on the employment docket that were previously handled by the Civil Division.
Perez: “I think the USERRA cases used to be in the Civil Division. USERRA [The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act] is the law that protects service members who are doing remarkable service to our nation and then come home and find themselves victimized in the workplace because they don’t get their job back. When I talk about the fact that we’re ramping up enforcement in every area, USERRA is a perfect example of that. We’ve had somewhere in the vicinity of 22 cases in 2009, which was, when you look at the number of cases that were done in the preceding years, I think it’s more than was done in three years. We’ve dramatically ramped up enforcement in that area and the data shows it.
“That’s because people who are serving our country should be treated as heroes when they return home, not as victims, and they should not be victims of wrongdoing in the employment context and so we’re proud to be involved in those cases.”
MJ: The Civil Rights Division recently used Title IX to intervene in a case in New York which a boy was being bullied because he was gay. That statute uses similar language to Title VII in regard to gender discrimination. Do you think that the law as written already protects gay students and employees from discrimination or does the law need to be strengthened in that area?
Perez: “Well Title IX is the title of jurisdiction in that particular case, and it’s not the first time that the Justice Department has been involved in a case of this nature. In the Clinton administration, we were involved in a similar set of facts, and the facts are egregious. A person going to school trying to learn and being repeatedly abused, not simply psychologically, but physically, and the school district being notified, not simply once, but repeatedly, and the complaint alleges that they failed to take action.
“I’m hopeful that our involvement in this case will result in a resolution in that matter so that any boy or girl going to school can ensure that they are in a learning environment that enables them to learn and that doesn’t have them fearful for their life walking to school. As a parent, I want my children to be safe in school and I want my school district to take the necessary steps to keep my kids safe.”
MJ: The Civil Rights Division is also putting emphasis on human trafficking. What are some of your priorities in that area and how do your balance that new area of interest with the division’s other priorities?
Perez: “Human trafficking is a human scourge. We have two types of human trafficking cases that we have been seeing — forced labor cases where people are forced into conditions that amount to involuntary servitude, and then sex trafficking where people are chattel. And they’re no longer just in big urban cities. In the mid-90s we had a big case in Los Angeles, for instance, and we still have cases in there, but they are also in suburban and rural pockets of the country. Wherever you have immigrants you have potential for trafficking and the suburbanization of immigration has really made this a national challenge, and that’s why it will continue to be a priority.
“I really think we can do all these things within our resource complement because number one when you’re happy in your job, you’re motivated and you can get things done. Number two, we’ve got additional resources thanks to the attorney general and the president’s strong commitment to civil rights, so we’ve got a cavalry of 102 new people coming on board this year to help us in all these areas, and that’s very exciting.”
MJ: There was a focus in the Bush administration, particularly in the voting section, on so-called “reverse racism” cases. Do you think the law as it’s written is colorblind and will you file cases on behalf of those who fall outside of the categories that the Civil Rights Division has historically protected?
Perez: “We’ll certainly investigate any charge of discrimination, and that is the charge in the employment context, the voting context, the education contexts and all of the contexts.”
MJ: How is your office preparing for the census and redistricting?
Perez: “Well we’re working closely with our colleagues at the Census Bureau. I speak regularly with the general counsel there. I will personally be actively involved, and have been actively involved, in the marketing because we really have to get the message out there to the public that it is so critically important that everybody be counted. We have to get the message out there that you need not be scared about talking to the census workers. There’s no ill consequences, and there is privacy guaranteed in these conversations, and we have to eliminate the undercount, because the communities that we’re trying to serve, if you’re not counted, you’re not going to get served because your communities lose money.”
MJ: Friday was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Could you talk a little bit about the George Tiller murder case [Tiller was a doctor who performed late-term abortions] and what your office is doing in that area?
Perez: “We’re closely monitoring the state prosecution. We’ve been out in that area since shortly after the incident and we will continue to carefully monitor the case.”