A new law and more enforcement
During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised to "vigorously pursue" hate crimes and civil rights cases.
When we last updated this promise, the U.S. Justice Department had already bolstered its efforts to pursue cases related to hate crimes and civil rights abuses, which earned it a rating of "In the Works.”
Has that continued?
"The answer is absolutely, yes," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed that the administration had delivered on this promise.
"Maybe no one can live up to their campaign rhetoric, but they've done a pretty darn good job,” Cohen said.
Both Cohen and Lieberman referred us to President Obama's signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which broadens federal jurisdiction in prosecuting hate crimes. It also expands the definition of a hate crime to include bias-motivated crimes based on a victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.
Lieberman called this the most important federal criminal civil rights enforcement law in 40 years; before it was passed, there were 45 states and the District of Columbia with hate crimes prevention laws, but they did not all cover the same categories of crimes.
"It provides limited but important (federal) government authority to act when state or local officials can't or won't," he said.
Cohen also noted that the Civil Rights Division has been active in pursuing cases involving equal opportunities for employment and education.
We found that the Civil Rights Division pursued record numbers of criminal civil rights cases in both 2009 and 2010. It established a dedicated Fair Lending Unit to stop discriminatory lending practices against minorities. It has pursued cases to ensure citizens with disabilities and overseas military personnel have the opportunity to vote.
This is not an exhaustive list of every action the Civil Rights Division has taken, nor are we passing judgment on the effectiveness of the division in ending all hate crimes and civil rights abuses. As the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Thomas Perez, acknowledged in a testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee, hate crimes are on the rise and civil rights remains "unfinished business.” Still, it is clear that the division has made a renewed and robust commitment to enforcing civil rights and prosecuting hate crimes.
We rate this a Promise Kept.
Anti-Defatmaion League, Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA): What You Need To Know, 2010
Senate Judiciary Committee, Transcript of hearing on Oversight of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, April 10, 2010
Senate Judiciary Committee, Transcript of hearing on Oversight of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, Sept. 13, 2011
House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Transcript of hearing on the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, Dec. 9, 2009
American Constitution Society at the National Press Club, Text of speech by Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, Dec. 18, 2009
Civil rights enforcement memo from the acting assistant attorney general to civil rights officers at federal agencies, June 10, 2009
The New York Times story on Attorney General Eric Holder's efforts to revamp the Civil Rights Division, Sept. 1, 2009
Telephone interview with Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, June 6, 2012
Telephone interview with Michael Lieberman, Washington Counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, June 7, 2012
Telephone interview with Maya Rupert, Federal Policy Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, June 7, 2012
Memos indicate a new emphasis
This isn't the sort of a promise that can be crossed off a list once it"s accomplished; it will require an ongoing effort by President Barack Obama and his new point man at the U.S. Justice Department, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez.
But it appears the Obama administration has begun making good on this promise, beginning with a civil rights enforcement memo issued by the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, Loretta King, on July 10, 2009. The memo to the civil rights officers and directors in every federal agency outlined new procedures for helping the Justice Department "in a renewed effort to ensure the consistent and effective enforcement of Title VI," the Civil Rights Act.
The memo also said the Justice Department was making it a priority to address civil rights issues in emergency preparedness and response – echoes of Hurricane Katrina – and to enforce federal civil rights laws when local governments use federal grants.
"The administrative power of Title VI -- linking funding to nondiscrimination -- proved to be as powerful as litigation, particularly in the area of education desegregation. Why? Because the federal government determined that Title VI had powerful potential and worked boldly to ensure enforcement," the July 10 memo said. "Although the context has changed, the need for vigilance and for strong agency action to root out discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin have not."
Meanwhile, since his installation ceremony on Nov. 17, 2009, Perez has been pushing an agenda of "restoration and revitalization" for his department, which critics say was overly politicized and often hamstrung during the Bush administration. In testimony before Congress and in speeches, he has made it clear that he intends to aggressively pursue encroachments on civil rights. In testimony to a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee, he also said he was purging political considerations from hiring practices in his division.
Finally, as part of this promise, Obama pledged his assistant attorney general for civil rights would lay out a plan for diversifying the office personnel within 100 days; Perez has only the had the job about two months, so he still has another month and change to go. The Justice Department has yet to respond to queries about Perez"s report, but the apparent efforts to revamp the office amount to enough for us to find that this campaign promise is In the Works.
Dec. 18, 2009, text of speech by Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, to the American Constitution Society at the National Press Club.
June 10, 2009, civil rights enforcement memo from the acting assistant attorney general to civil rights officers at federal agencies.