The Justice Department is taking strong steps to protect the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans because they are being targeted for particular prejudice and abuse, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez of the Civil Rights Division said Tuesday.
In comparing the discrimination of Muslim Americans to past discrimination of Catholics, Jews and others, Perez, testifying at a Senate Judiciary constitution, civil rights and human rights subcommittee hearing, attempted to fend off Republican criticism of recent DOJ actions.
Perez touted a litany of cases in which the DOJ has sought to defend the rights of Muslims to practice their religion freely and not face discrimination. But a case involving a Muslim teacher who had to quit her job to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca took center stage, as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the panel’s top Republican, pushed Perez about the validity of the case.
The case involves Safoorah Khan, 29, who was a middle school math teacher for nine months in Berkeley, Ill., when she requested three weeks off for the pilgrimage. The school district rejected her request because it said she was essential for end-of-semester school work. She ultimately quit her job and made the pilgrimage. The DOJ filed a lawsuit against the school district, alleging it infringed on her civil rights by compelling her to make a decision between her faith and job.
Graham said the DOJ’s decision to take up the case was “curious.” The Republican said Khan should have been able to find a way to accommodate the school district. He said he would not support a Christian making a request for time off in the school year to attend a three-week pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
“The fact that you took this case up is going to do more damage than good,” Graham said.
Perez defended the DOJ’s decision to file the lawsuit, noting that a similar case was taken up in the George W. Bush administration against a Tennessee hospital that didn’t allow a Muslim medical technician to take three weeks off to attend the pilgrimage.
“I’m very proud of the work we’re doing in that case,” the Assistant Attorney General said.
But Graham wasn’t impressed.
“Well they were wrong too,” the senator said.
Perez’s testimony comes less than three weeks after Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held a hearing on Islamic radicalization, drawing a firestorm of controversy. Spectators, members of the media and television cameras filled a packed Senate hearing room on Tuesday looking for a similar display.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the panel holding Tuesday’s hearing, told CNN that his hearing wasn’t a response to King’s hearing. Remarks and questions from Democratic senators on Tuesday focused on the protection of Muslim Americans.
“We must condemn anti-Muslim bigotry and make it clear that we won’t tolerate religious discrimination in our communities,” Durbin said at the hearing. “We can protect our nation and still protect the fundamental freedoms of our Bill of Rights.”
Republican senators said they support protecting the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans. But they said they also endorse strong efforts to combat homegrown terrorism.
“The only way to stop terrorists is to recognize where they’re coming from,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “Political correctness cannot stand in the way of identifying those who would do us harm nor can we ignore the First Amendment protections.”
Graham asked Perez whether radicalization is on the rise in the United States. The Assistant Attorney General said it was hard for him to say.
The DOJ has come under fire from Republicans, Democrats and the Muslim-American community for its handling of terrorism cases involving U.S. citizens. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed suit against the FBI claiming the agency improperly targeted Muslims for surveillance.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told House members this month that the FBI attempts to be as open as it can about its actions in terrorism investigations. But sometimes the bureau can’t give details about the subjects of its investigations and the methods employed because it is classified information, he said.
Despite these issues, Mueller said his agency has a “very good relationship” with Muslim Americans.
On Tuesday, Perez said the DOJ is working to ensure that the rights of Muslim Americans are protected.
“We will continue to use every available tool in our law enforcement arsenal to transform this headwind of intolerance into a tailwind of inclusion and opportunity,” Perez said.
The Assistant Attorney General said the DOJ has a long history of protecting the civil rights of Muslim Americans, praising the work of R. Alexander Acosta, a U.S. Attorney and Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division during the George W. Bush administration.
Acosta, who also testified Tuesday, said protecting the rights of Muslim Americans is a bipartisan issue.
“Muslim Americans should take comfort in knowing the effort to protect religious liberties has been ongoing since 9-11, has transcended the partisan divide and I hope continues to transcend the partisan divide,” Acosta said.
The Memphis U.S. Attorney’s office has established a Civil Rights Unit, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III of the Western District of Tennessee announced this week.
The new unit will prosecute cases involving hate crimes, discrimination, human trafficking, official misconduct and law enforcement public corruption. Perez and Stanton announced the establishment of the unit in front of the Memphis motel where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
“The Justice Department is committed to enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and I am pleased that the Civil Rights Division has a strong partner here in Tennessee to help carry out this critical work,” Perez said, according to the DOJ.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Parker of the Western District of Tennessee will lead the unit. Western District of Tennessee Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brian Coleman and Jonathan Skrmetti, who came to Memphis this year from the DOJ Civil Rights Division in Washington, will serve with Parker in the unit.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Skrmetti is an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Memphis who previously served in the DOJ Civil Rights Division.
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The administration of President Barack Obama has launched a program designed to improve efforts by the federal government to investigate and prosecute human traffickers, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.
The program will include pilot “anti-trafficking coordination teams” led by top federal law enforcement officials based across the United States with different agencies, said Holder, speaking at a State Department meeting with Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FBI Director Robert Mueller. The Obama administration has yet to announce what cities will host the teams.
“The launch of these ACTeams will enable us to leverage the assets and expertise of each federal enforcement agency more effectively than ever before,” Holder said. “But we will not rest until this unprecedented collaboration translates into the results that matter most: the liberation of victims and the prosecution of traffickers.”
Holder said the program and work already done by federal officials to combat human trafficking move the government a step closer to winning the battle against the crime. He noted that the DOJ prosecuted the most human-trafficking cases in its history last year. In fiscal 2010, the DOJ handled 52 human-trafficking cases, nine more than the previous record set in fiscal 2009.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez of the DOJ Civil Rights Division told Main Justice last year that the enforcement of human-trafficking laws is a priority of his office.
Perez said human trafficking, a crime in which immigrants are often the victims, is “a national challenge” that affects urban areas as well as suburban and rural communities. The Assistant Attorney General said the influx of immigrants in smaller communities has increased the potential for sex trafficking and involuntary servitude in those locales.
This story has been updated from an earlier version.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole used his first major appearance in the Justice Department Great Hall on Tuesday to praise a former Assistant Attorney General who played a major role in the civil rights movement.
The No. 2 official at the DOJ lauded John Doar for his service to Civil Rights Division as a First Assistant from 1960 to 1965 and Assistant Attorney General from 1965 to 1967. Doar was intimately involved in some of the biggest civil rights matters of the 1960s, often appearing in the streets and courtrooms of Mississippi to fight for the rights of blacks.
Cole noted that Doar accompanied James Meredith in 1962 as he became the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi and successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for the lynching of three civil rights activists in 1964. The lynching case was the inspiration for the 1988 movie “Mississippi Burning.”
“I’m thrilled at the opportunity I have to be here to celebrate the history of the Civil Rights Division and to honor a man who frankly was one of my heroes growing up — John Doar — for what he has done,” Cole said.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez of the Civil Rights Division also paid tribute to Doar, thanking him “for setting the bar so high for everyone.” He said he was “mesmerized” by “The Manual of the Civil Rights Division,” which Doar penned in 1965. Perez said he would make the tome available to those interesting in reading it.
“I think in order for us to understand our job and understand our critical mission, it’s important for us to understand our legacy,” Perez said.
The Civil Rights Division was established in 1957 after the enactment of that year’s Civil Rights Act. Doar said the division had only about 35 lawyers in its first couple of years. And a lot of those lawyers worked on matters that weren’t part of division’s core mission, he said.
But the former Assistant Attorney General said the division was beefed up in the 1960s and renewed its focus on protecting civil rights. Doar recalled at a tribute to Robert F. Kennedy on Friday that the former Attorney General was a driving force behind the federal government’s increased involvement in civil rights issues in the 1960s.
Doar, who helped draft the Voting Rights Act of 1965, said he was proud that the work of the Civil Rights Division in the 1960s made it possible for a black person to be elected president in 2008 and for black people to freely participate in that election.
“And [the 2008 election] to me proved that through the work of everybody who worked from ‘60 to ‘65 on voting that did something that was very worthwhile in this country because it converted a dishonest to an honest system of self-government,” Doar said.
The common theme throughout the panel discussion on Friday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Robert F. Kennedy’s time as attorney general was his dedication to ensuring civil rights.
The group shared their memories of Kennedy with a huge audience, including members of the Kennedy family, at the Great Hall in the Department of Justice. A portrait of a youthful Kennedy wearing a gray jacket with his hands jammed in his khakis and his red leather high-backed chair stood prominently on stage reminding guests of his lasting imprint at DOJ — and making it hard to believe that he would be 85 years old if he were still alive.
The four panelists included a veteran civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); an administrative assistant to Attorney General Kennedy and journalist, John Seigenthaler; the first African-American woman to enter the University of Georgia and journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and the First Assistant and then the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division from 1960 to 1967, John Doar. The moderator was Jack Rosenthal, a public affairs officer and special assistant to Kennedy and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1986, Lewis recalled his tumultuous experience as a freedom rider in the 1960s. The activists planned to travel from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. But they were stalled in Montgomery, Ala. and subjected to beatings and violence. Kennedy intervened and threatened federal intervention if a Greyhound bus driver did not drive the group so their journey could go on.
“It was the first real test in the area of civil rights,” Lewis said. “Robert Kennedy used his power, used his ability to save lives that evening in Montgomery.” Lewis knew well the dangers faced by civil rights activists: he was clubbed on the head by Alabama state troopers in1965.
Seigenthaler called that era an exciting time to be able “to listen to the work of justice unfold by these giants of justice.”
Hunter-Gault witnessed Kennedy’s first major speech as Attorney General. She freely admitted her anxieties and uneasiness anticipating his speech, for she was still smarting from her peers’ racist taunts protesting her admittance to the University of Georgia.
Her fears started to ease once she heard Kennedy speak to the universality of equal rights. “I suddenly heard Kennedy say in the worldwide struggle, the graduation of Charlayne Hunter in Hamilton homes will without a question aid and assist the fight against communism, political infiltration and the global warfare. And I said my graduation is going to do what?”
Doar, who was one of the central figures at DOJ, dedicating himself to getting rid of Jim Crow laws and helping draft the Voting Rights Act of 1965, emphasized Kennedy’s involvement with civil rights advancements.
He recalled Kennedy’s drive, his ability to get attorneys to work with him, his generosity and sense of humor. Kennedy would say, “‘You’ve got to do more; what are you going to do about Mississippi?’ That’s not good enough,’” Doar said.
The day had a decidedly celebratory tone, with the current attorney general, Eric Holder, the first black man to hold the post, and Kennedy’s eldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, offering remarks and Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, joining them on stage. But it was marked with solemn reverence for the man to whom the day was dedicated.
Both Doar and Lewis easily associated Kennedy’s legacy with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Without 1965, there would be no [President] Barack Obama as president of the United States of America,” Lewis said.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez addressed the importance of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division on Thursday at the Howard University School of Law.
“I get asked the following question and with great regularity: why do we need a civil rights division in the year 2011?” Perez said. “When I was asked that question the seventh or eighth time by people of good faith, I recognized that I needed to take a step back and that I needed to make it part of our job not simply to enforce the laws which we do and we do so with pride, and independence and evenhandedness, but we need to explain why we are enforcing laws.”
Speaking to an audience of primarily students, Perez acknowledged past progress in making society more equal. But he said there was a long way to go toward reinvigorating the division that Attorney General Eric Holder once deemed the department’s “crown jewel.”
During the George W. Bush administration, conservative political appointees who were hostile to a traditional focus on protecting minority rights ran the division, driving out more liberal veteran career attorneys. A Government Accountability Office report released numbers that confirmed the mass exodus of the division’s career attorneys from 2001 to 2007 and showed several areas where enforcement of civil rights law declined.
“We are here to ensure that the fundamental infrastructure of democracy remains robust,” Perez said.
The foreclosure crisis had a disproportionate effect on communities of color, according to Perez, resulting in the largest monetary settlement in the division’s history in a fair lending case last year. The $6.1 million settlement involved two subsidiaries of American International Group Inc. that affected 2,500 African-Americans, with each borrower receiving about $2,300.
“The two subsidiaries were gouging African Americans and transforming the American dream into the American nightmare, using the corrosive power of fine print to send people into a downward financial spiral,” he told the audience at the historically black university.
Perez hailed what he called other accomplishments, including an Americans with Disabilities Act settlement in Georgia reinforcing the 1999 Olmstead vs. L.C. Supreme Court decision that made it illegal to segregate in institutions people with disabilities who could receive the same services in a community setting. He also cited what he called progress for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
The division also now uses disparate impact theory to strengthen its work, a tool the division uses to pursue discrimination cases where there is no intent to discriminate but a difference in results from it, which wasn’t allowed in the Bush administration, according to Perez.
“There are too many people across this nation, people with disabilities; people of color; people who are LGBT,people who are Muslim; people who need our help,” he said. “We will continue to fight that battle for equal opportunity.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday at a Justice Department commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. that efforts to bring tolerance and peace are more powerful than attacks on public officials like Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)
Holder told more than 100 members of the DOJ community gathered in the Great Hall that the Tucson shooting Saturday that left Giffords critically injured and six dead, including Chief U.S. District Judge John Roll, brought the importance of King’s legacy of nonviolent activism “into stark focus.”
“This senseless and shameful act of violence serves as an unfortunate reminder that – more than 40 years since Dr. King’s own tragic and untimely death – our world has yet to run its course of cruelty,” Holder said. “And our work to combat violence – and to bring those who engage in violent acts to justice – goes on.”
The Attorney General praised the work of King, who was killed in 1968 as he fought for equality among all Americans. He said King made it possible for him to become the first black Attorney General. Holder said he will visit Atlanta next week to pay tribute to King at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the civil rights leader once was pastor, and at the King Center, which was established as a memorial to King.
Holder said King not only had a great influence on him, but also on the DOJ. The Attorney General said the civil rights leader’s dream of equality among all Americans helped fortify DOJ efforts to protect civil rights.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez of the Civil Rights Division also praised King for his impact on the DOJ. But he also lauded Holder for his efforts to “restore and transform the Civil Rights Division.”
Holder made work to safeguard civil rights a top priority when he became Attorney General in 2009. The Civil Rights Division came under fire during the administration of President George W. Bush, when then-division head Bradley Schlozman was found to have improperly considered politics when hiring for career positions.
Holder said DOJ lawyers should be commended for their work to protect civil rights. But he said the fight for equality among Americans isn’t over.
“Now, for some, it may be tempting – when you look at the many accomplished attorneys and public servants in this Great Hall – to think that our nation’s struggle for equal opportunity has ended,” Holder said. “That’s not true. We have more to do. We have further to go.”
California Attorney General-elect Kamala Harris on Wednesday named two former federal prosecutors to her office, Black Voices News reported.
Jack Weiss will serve as chairman of the Gangs, Gun Crimes and Organized Crime Smart on Crime committee. Weiss, who worked in the criminal division of the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s office from 1994 to 2000, is now a managing director and head of the Los Angeles office of Kroll’s Business Intelligence and investigations practice. Before joining Kroll in September 2010, he served as a member of the Los Angeles City Council from 2001 to 2009.
Bill Lann Lee will serve as the chairman of the Civil Rights Enforcement Smart on Crime committee. Lee, who was the Assistant Attorney General for civil rights from 1997 to 2001, is now a shareholder at Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker, & Jackson, P.C. He previously was a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP. Lee also has worked as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
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A federal prosecutor who urged pursuing a controversial voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party defied Justice Department orders not to appear on Friday before a federal commission.
Christopher Coates, who was chief of the Civil Rights Division Voting Section, told members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez and other DOJ officials gave inaccurate statements on the handling of the case, which involved members of an anti-white fringe group who stood outside a majority-black polling place wearing military clothing in November 2008.
The prosecutor said the Civil Rights Division, led by then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, was opposed to the enforcement of voting rights laws when there was suspected discrimination against whites. Coates said the decisions made on the New Black Panthers case led to a “travesty on justice.”
“Quite simply, if incorrect representations are going to successfully thwart inquiry into the systemic problems regarding race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the Civil Rights Division – problems that were manifested in the DOJ’s disposition of the New Black Panther Party case – that end is not going to be furthered or accomplished by my sitting silently by at the direction of my supervisors while incorrect information is provided,” said Coates, who is now at the South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office. “I do not believe that I am professionally, ethically, legally, much less, morally bound to allow such a result to occur.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights subpoenaed Coates and former DOJ trial attorney J. Christian Adams as part of its investigation into the DOJ’s handling of the New Black Panthers case. The DOJ said it would not allow Coates or Adams to appear before the commission, citing a longstanding policy that prevents frontline attorneys from testifying. Adams, who resigned earlier this year over the case, testified before the commission in July, saying the DOJ purposely passed up cases against blacks suspected of voting rights infractions.
Director Joseph H. Hunt of the DOJ Civil Division Federal Programs branch wrote in a letter to commission general counsel David Blackwood that Coates is not “an appropriate witness” to testify about current DOJ decision making. Perez was the only DOJ official who was allowed to appear before the commission.
Perez, who was not at the DOJ during the final disposition of the case, defended the handling of the case in May when he testified before the commission.
“This is a case about career people disagreeing with career people,” Perez said in May. He added that it show the “robust interaction” that is an element of the typical daily life of the Justice Department.
DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine said earlier this month that his office will examine how the Civil Rights Division enforces voting rights laws, after Republican Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Frank Wolf of Virginia expressed concern about the handling of the New Black Panthers case. Fine, however, said he would look at the Voting Section’s enforcement of laws “over time,” suggesting his probe would also examine allegations of politicization during the George W. Bush administration.
At the hearing Friday, Coates said there was “widespread” opposition in the DOJ to his successful 2005 prosecution of a black Democratic Party official in Noxubee County, Miss., which was the first time a case was filed under the Voting Rights Act for discrimination against white voters.
“In my opinion, this disposition of the Panther case was ordered because the people calling the shots in May 2009 were angry at the filing of the  case and angry at the filing of the Panther case,” Coates said. “That anger was the result of their deep-seated opposition to the equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of white voters, who have been discriminated against.”
The prosecutor said he asked to transfer to South Carolina for an 18-month assignment in late 2009, after “considerable conflict” between himself and Civil Rights Division officials, including King and her deputy, Steve Rosenbaum. He said he became Voting Section “chief only in name” by fall 2009.
“If Senator [John] McCain had won the election and … his people let me in as chief of the Voting Section and there had been good relations between us, then I would have stayed on as chief of the Voting Section awhile longer,” Coates said.
In an e-mailed statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler called the commission’s investigation “thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.” She also noted a Justice Department Inspector General’s report, which found the Civil Rights Division during the previous administration was overly politicized
Her full statement is embedded below.
“As even one Republican member of the commission has acknowledged, this so-called investigation is thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.
The Department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved. We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation. We continue to work with voters, communities, and local law enforcement to ensure that Americans can vote free from intimidation, coercion or threats.
Let’s not forget the context in which these allegations are being made. The politicization that occurred in the Civil Rights Division in the previous administration has been well documented by the Inspector General, and it was a disgrace to the great history of the division. We have changed that. We have reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division and ensured that it is actively enforcing the American people’s civil rights, and it is clear that not everyone supports that. We are committed to enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and we are going to continue to do so without respect to politics.”
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A Justice Department official who urged pursuing a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panthers will appear before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The Washington Times reported Wednesday.
Christopher Coates, who was chief of the Civil Rights Division Voting Section, will testify before the commission on Friday when the body continues its hearing on the DOJ’s decision to dismiss charges against all but one defendant in the case. The defendants from the anti-white fringe group stood outside a majority-black polling place in November 2008 wearing military clothing.
The DOJ previously said it would not allow Coates to appear before the commission. He is now working at the South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The handling of the New Black Panthers case has worried Republicans who have expressed concern that politics may have influenced the DOJ’s decision to dismiss charges in the case.