by Laura Abel, Deputy Director, National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School
Recently the Justice Department’s groundbreaking civil rights work received a boost when a federal district court allowed it to proceed with its civil rights case against the Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio. The Justice Department’s suit alleges that the Sheriff is harming the Latino community in a dozen mean-spirited and unlawful ways, including: race-based stops, searches and arrests; the denial of health care and other services in the county jail for prisoners with limited proficiency in English; and retaliation against people who dare to complain. The Department’s complaint provides some insight into the human cost. For example, it tells the story of four Latino men, whose car was stopped even though they had not violated any traffic laws: the officers “ordered the men out of the car, zip-tied them, and made them sit on the curb for an hour before releasing all of them.” And it explains that in the county jail, officers “routinely make announcements only in English” about such fundamental things as the “time … to go outdoors, receive clothing, or eat.”
Investigations into serious civil rights abuses have been one of the hallmarks of Attorney General Eric Holder’s tenure. The Justice Department’s investigations into language access problems in state courts and law enforcement agencies around the country have been particularly successful, leading to major improvements in many states. As a result of civil rights investigations in Colorado and Rhode Island, for instance, the courts in both states agreed to provide interpreters for limited English proficient individuals in all civil cases.
Sheriff Arpaio responded to the investigation and lawsuit with characteristic intransigence. He repeatedly obstructed the investigation by refusing to provide documents. In response to the lawsuit, he argued that the government had not provided sufficient evidence of discrimination, a contention that the court quickly rejected. He also argued that his own failure to provide language access did not violate Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act. The court roundly rejected this too, holding that “longstanding case law, federal regulations and agency interpretation of those regulations hold language-based discrimination constitutes a form of national origin discrimination under Title VI.”
When Thomas Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, announced the lawsuit, he said, “I would rather fix the problem than debate the existence of a problem.” The district court’s opinion should end the debate. Of course, Sheriff Arpaio is free to appeal. But the district court decision is firmly grounded and should stand. Just as important, the Justice Department should view the decision as validating its civil rights enforcement strategy. In 2014, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and give thanks for a Justice Department committed to enforcing it.
*This piece is cross-posted at the National Center for Access to Justice’s website.