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.