Department of Justice

  • January 18, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Bill Yeomans, Fellow in Law and Government at American University Washington College of Law

    The election of Donald Trump has thrown the federal bureaucracy into uncertainty and nowhere is that uncertainty felt more strongly than in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Trump’s campaign invoked racism, misogyny, xenophobia and disregard for the rule of law – all directly at odds with the fundamental laws that the Division enforces. The nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general confirmed the worst fears of Division lawyers that, once again, it is in the crosshairs of an incoming administration that is hostile to its mission. Many who work there face a decision whether to stay or go.

    I know. I spent 26 years in the Department of Justice, starting in the Jimmy Carter presidency and running through the transitions to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. I chose to stay in the belief that the work of combating discrimination remained essential and to challenge the new administration to adhere to the Division’s tradition of formulating its positions through reasoned, legal argument, rather than political fiat. I recognized both that the career attorneys – with their fidelity to the law and knowledge of the Department’s customs and traditions--presented the strongest impediment to radical, lawless change and that even in the most challenging times important work could be done. In the weeks since the election, I have been approached by career attorneys wondering whether the Division will remain a place where they can work. My answer is that it is an intensely personal choice, but that they should understand that they have an important role to play in pressing for continued enforcement of the law and against politically driven retreat. Indeed, the corps of dedicated career employees remains the principal bulwark against the threat of a lawless executive.

    Since its creation in the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Division has increased opportunity for large segments of the population. It has expanded access to meaningful voting; desegregated police and fire departments; attacked school desegregation; opened housing markets; expanded access to employment and accommodations for people with disabilities; and prosecuted police officers for using excessive force, people who engage in hate motivated violence and those who traffic in human beings. 

  • November 30, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    In The New York Times, Linda Greenhouse writes that the birth control and abortion cases on the Supreme Court’s docket present “a battle for the secular state in which women can make their choices and design what Justice Ginsburg calls their life course, free of obstacles erected by those who would impose their religious views on others.”

    At The Washington Post, Sandhya Somashekhar explains how violent, deceiving rhetoric from anti-abortion advocates directly contributed to the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last Friday.

    The family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black male fatally shot by a white police officer last year, has presented Ohio prosecutors with two new reports from former high-ranking officials at California law enforcement agencies criticizing the Cleveland officer’s actions as reckless and unreasonable, writes Mitch Smith in The New York Times.

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations has called on the Department of Justice to investigate the Thanksgiving Day shooting of a Muslim taxi driver in Pittsburgh by an Islamophobic passenger, reports Peter Holley in The Washington Post.

  • September 10, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    In The New York Times, Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz detail the violent death of an inmate at the hands of New York prison guards. 

    Michael Biesecker at The Associated Press reports that Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled Wednesday that House Republicans can move forward with their claim that the Obama administration’s health care spending has violated the Constitution.

    In The New York Times, Matt Apuzzo and Ben Protess examine new policies from the Department of Justice that prioritize the prosecution of individual Wall Street employees, not companies, directly involved in the 2008 housing crisis and financial meltdown. 

  • March 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Thomas Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology and Director of Graduate Programs in Criminology at Merrimack College

    The report from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division on the Ferguson, Mo. Police Department is a damning indictment of an out-of-control, lawless, and racist police department gone rogue.  Given the context and history of policing in Ferguson provided in the DOJ investigation, it seemed inevitable that an unarmed African American teenager would be shot dead by a white Ferguson police officer following a confrontation over a “Manner of Walking in Roadway” offense (or theft of cigarillos if that is to be believed).  One is tempted to question how it didn’t happen sooner than August 9, 2014.

    The Ferguson Police Department (FPD) arrested 460 individuals for outstanding warrants between October 2012 and October 2014: 96 percent of those arrested were African American.  According to the DOJ report, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95 percent of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, 94 percent of Failure to Comply charges, 92 percent of Resisting Arrest charges, 92 percent of Peace Disturbance charges, and 89 percent of Failure to Obey charges.  “Despite making up 67 percent of the population, African Americans accounted for 85 percent of FPD’s traffic stops, 90 percent of FPD’s citations, and 93 percent of FPD’s arrests from 2012 to 2014.”  The race-based enforcement tactics and strategies employed by the FPD have a disparate impact on African Americans that is violative of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    The DOJ report also found that the FPD has engaged in a “pattern and practice of constitutional violations (that primarily target African Americans) in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force.”  The FPD’s policies and practices were found to routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in racially profiling African Americans and disproportionally singling them out for “pedestrian checks,” “Failure to Comply,” and illegal “Stop and Identify” offenses.  DOJ found that the FPD consistently uses excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that African Americans accounted for almost 90 percent of the use of force incidents from 2010 to 2014.  FPD used force involving a canine bite 14 times during this time period and in all incidents the person bitten was African American.   

    The FPD also engages in a standard (and unlawful) practice of arresting individuals for engaging in activities that are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution: “people are punished for talking back to officers, recording public police activities, and lawfully protesting perceived injustices.” 

  • January 16, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Margaret Colgate Love, former U.S. Pardon Attorney (1990-1997)
     
    * Ms. Love now represents applicants for executive clemency. Her client Clarence Aaron was one of those commuted by President Obama on December 19.
     
    On December 19, President Obama commuted the prison sentences of eight people convicted of trafficking in crack cocaine and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.  Each person had spent at least 15 years behind bars, and all but two were serving a mandatory life term.  The President was generally commended for his acts of mercy, the only reservation being that he had not done more to provide relief to thousands of similarly situated individuals still imprisoned under laws he himself characterized as “unjust.”
     
    One of those whose sentence the President commuted was Clarence Aaron, a college student with no prior record who was sentenced in 1993 to three life terms based on his limited role in two drug transactions for which he was paid $1500.  Another was Stephanie George, described by the sentencing judge as the “bag holder and money holder” for her crack-dealing boyfriend, whose life sentence was based on two prior convictions for selling a total of $160 worth of crack.
     
    Clarence Aaron is now on his way home, as are Stephanie George and the other members of the December 19 Eight, most of whom thought they would never see home again.  So it is time to consider what happens now for the hundreds of similarly situated individuals still behind bars.
     
    The President himself acknowledged, in a statement accompanying the grants, that while he had taken “an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” that step “must not be the last.”  He urged Congress to act on “reform measures already working their way through Congress” to provide relief from “a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust.” The specific “reform measure” the President was referring to is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) fully retroactive.  The impression left by his statement was that passage of this bill, along with policy changes announced by the Attorney General in August 2013, would be sufficient to restore fairness to the legal system, and that the job of doing justice had now passed to Congress.