The chief of the Civil Rights Division on Wednesday thanked Attorney General Eric Holder and his No. 2, James Cole, for their support, saying “civil rights for you has always been a part of your DNA.”
The division’s chief, Thomas Perez made the remarks at the division’s annual award ceremony today at the Robert F. Kennedy Justice Building.
Holder spoke to a full audience in the Justice Department’s Great Hall, saying in the last four years the division has put in record numbers of prosecutions. In the last four years, the division has secured convictions against 140 defendants on federal hate crime charges. In addition, the Fair Lending Unit has filed or resolved almost two dozen cases in the last two years. In the last fiscal year, the Voting Section has opened more new cases than in any other years with 40 matters, doubling last year’s number, Holder said.
Holder presented the top award to longtime prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein, the current Deputy Chief of the division’s Criminal Section. The 23-year veteran of the Civil Rights Division was given the John Doar Award, named after the former Assistant Attorney General of the division who was a pioneer during the Civil Rights Era.
Bernstein has overseen some of the most high-profile cases in the division since joining as a paralegal in 1989. She worked on the federal prosecution of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King, helped secure conviction against four Latino gang members who systematically killed and assaulted black citizens around Los Angeles, and she also worked on the prosecution of 10 New Orleans police officers convicted of killing innocent civilians and a subsequent cover up after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region.
Holder said he could think of “no one more deserving of this award” than Bernstein.
“She has built a reputation as a purpose-driven leader building an unsurpassed record of success,” Holder said, adding that she has become a mentor for many of her colleagues in the division.
Cole handed out the Walter W. Barnett Memorial Award, which honors a division lawyer with “extraordinary skill” in written and/or oral advocacy. Richard Dellheim, the Deputy Chief of the Voting Section, won this year’s honor, recognized for his work on the numerous battles — both inside and outside the courtroom — involving Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 5 requires states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear any changes to voting procedures with the department. Some conservatives have argued that Section 5 addresses problems that no longer exist.
The department became involved in a number of challenges to new voter identification laws, including a high-profile case in South Carolina. A federal judge ordered South Carolina to make several changes to its voter ID law so it did not erect barriers to voting. The former chief of the Voting Section, Christopher Coates - who was pushed out of his position in 2009 — later ended up representing South Carolina in the lawsuit.
Cole noted the high-profile nature of the voter ID cases across the country, saying, “many people heard about this — it was prominent in the news.”
“[Dellheim's] work has resulted in new protections of the voting rights of literally thousands of voters and exemplifies the extraordinary contributions made by the Civil Rights Division,” Cole said.
Also honored was Gary Wong, the Deputy Executive Officer of the Administrative Management Section, who received the first-ever DeDe Green Memorial Award. Perez said the award’s namesake, Irva “DeDe” Green, longtime executive officer of the administrative unit, was like the John Doar of administration in the division. Greene died on April 10, 2012, after serving in the Justice Department since 1976.
Members of Greene’s family were on-hand for the ceremony, and posed for a photograph with Wong, first ever-recipient of the award.
Perez said of Wong: “If you don’t like Gary Wong, it’s your fault. That’s a fact, folks.”