This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on January 4, 2021.
Several media outlets are reporting a false story to the American people, namely, that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which I lead, is hostile to the enforcement of our civil rights laws.
For example, NPR recently claimed that prosecutions of police officers were down and called for “resurrection” of the Civil Rights Division; Bloomberg reported the Division had relaxed “enforcement of protections in housing, education, and the workplace”; and the New York Times wrote that “racial justice work” has “languished.”
These stories and others like them deceive the public about the Civil Rights Division’s work and do a disservice to its 596 dedicated attorneys and staff — almost all of whom are career employees who have served in multiple administrations.
Since 1957, the Civil Rights Division has enforced a broad range of laws that protect all people against discrimination, violence, and exploitation because of their race, color, national origin, sex, religion, and disability. This important work has continued during the Trump administration, and the Civil Rights Division set enforcement records in traditional areas of civil rights as well as stood up for civil and constitutional rights newly under threat or previously overlooked.
For example, the Civil Rights Division prosecutes law enforcement violations of our constitutional and other federally-protected rights. These cases typically involve instances of excessive force by law enforcement officers. Since 2017, the Division has criminally prosecuted hundreds of officers. In 2019, the Division prosecuted more of these criminal cases than in any prior year of its history. The Civil Rights Division also enforced federal civil rights laws against law enforcement institutions. This included cases against police departments for excessive force and race discrimination, as well as cases against prison systems engaged in the systemic sexual abuse of female inmates, the abuse of mentally ill prisoners, and the use of excessive force against inmates.
This year, the number of hate crime cases charged by the division was the highest in two decades. Since 2017, these have included the prosecutions of a white supremacist who killed one person and injured dozens of others in Charlottesville, Virginia; an arsonist who burned African American churches; individuals who burned crosses to threaten African American citizens; a man who allegedly murdered 23 individuals and attempted to kill dozens more because they were Hispanic; and violent, racially-motivated neo-Nazis who targeted with violence and threats of violence journalists writing about anti-Semitism. The division is also defending the conviction and death sentence of a mass-murderer of African American churchgoers.
Federal law also prohibits crimes that involve physical harm and criminal threats motivated by the victims’ other protected traits, such as religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. Under my watch, federal prosecutors vigorously enforced all of these protections — for example, by prosecuting criminals who targeted gay men for robbery, carjacking, and kidnapping; two men who allegedly shot and killed two transgender individuals; and violent attacks and murders against Jewish worshipers.
Since 2017, we have also enforced anti-discrimination laws in education, employment, housing, lending, and voting. As to racial discrimination, we have brought and resolved cases involving discrimination by local governments in employment; racial steering in housing; discriminatory lending; the Voting Rights Act; and to secure the right of high school students to apply to college without being subjected to unlawful discrimination because of their race. The division also launched a successful initiative to protect U.S. workers from citizenship discrimination and, recently, brought a case against a major social media company for its alleged widespread abuse of the temporary visa system.
The Civil Rights Division also set a new record for the number of sexual harassment lawsuits against landlords in 2020. Indeed, we created the sexual harassment in housing initiative to address what had been an overlooked offense. The division also successfully prosecuted sexual harassment cases against state and local government employers, including law enforcement, and against public schools and universities.
To combat modern-day slavery, we also increased significantly the number of prosecutors dedicated to human trafficking cases. Since 2017, our prosecutors and U.S. attorney partners convicted over 700 persons for human trafficking, including members of transnational sex-trafficking organizations.
Since 2017, our attorneys have also successfully resolved over 255 disability rights matters. These cases include historic settlements with West Virginia, to reform its children’s mental health system; with Amtrak, to make its stations accessible to individuals with disabilities; with North Dakota, to end unnecessary segregation of individuals with physical disabilities; and with Harris County, Texas to provide accessible voting to voters with disabilities.
We also defended in court protections against coercive abortions for women and their unborn children who are diagnosed with Down’s syndrome.
The Civil Rights Division also launched a record number of investigations and initiated and resolved cases all throughout the nation to protect the right of people of faith to practice their religion. These cases benefited Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, and others.
And finally, because there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and our civil rights laws, the Civil Rights Division has fought pandemic-related restrictions that unlawfully trample individual liberties in numerous jurisdictions across the nation. These fights began in April in a Mississippi federal court when we objected to a mayor’s restrictions on drive-in religious services. Since then, by both litigation and persuasion, we have challenged many unlawful restrictions of liberty. The Supreme Court recently endorsed the positions we have advanced since the pandemic began.
Division and rancor are a constant in American history. At another difficult time, in March 1861, President Abraham Lincoln reminded us that “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
False claims about the Civil Rights Division strain our bonds of affection but must not break them.