Oversight of the Civil Rights Division – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Location: House Judiciary Committee

Good Morning. My name is Wade Henderson and I’m the President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The Leadership Conference is the nation’s premier civil and human rights coalition, and has coordinated the national legislative campaigns on behalf of every major civil rights law since 1957, including the work to pass the historic 1957 Civil Rights Act, which created the Civil Rights Division 50 years ago this year. The Leadership Conference’s nearly 200 member organizations represent persons of color, women, children, organized labor, individuals with disabilities, older Americans, major religious groups, gays and lesbians and civil liberties and human rights groups. It’s a privilege to represent the civil rights community in addressing the Committee today.

The recent story of allegations that eight U.S. Attorneys were fired to further a political agenda was surprising to many; to those of us who have been watching the Civil Rights Division, it was not. Over the last six years, we have seen politics trump substance and alter the prosecution of our nation’s civil rights laws in many parts of the Division. We have seen career civil rights division employees – section chiefs, deputy chiefs, and line lawyers — forced out of their jobs in order to drive political agendas. We have seen whole categories of cases not being brought, and the bar made unreachably high for bringing suit in other cases. We have seen some outright overruling of career prosecutors for political reasons, and also many cases being “slow walked,” to death. For example, in the Housing Section alone, the total number of cases filed has fallen 42 percent since 2001, while the number of cases involving allegations of race discrimination has gone down by 60 percent, from 20 in 2001 to eight in 2006.

Changes in Administration have often brought changes in priorities within the Division, but these changes have never before challenged the core functions of the Division. And never before has there been such a concerted effort to structurally change the Division by focusing on personnel changes at every level.

The Division’s record on every score has undermined effective enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws, but it is the personnel changes to career staff that are, in many ways, most disturbing. For it is the staff that builds trust with communities, develops the cases, and negotiates effective remedies. Career staff has always been the soul of the Division, and it is under attack.

The Blueprint for this attack appeared in an article in National Review in 2002. The article, “Fort Liberalism: Can Justice’s civil rights division be Bushified,” argued that previous Republican administrations were not successful in stopping the civil rights division from engaging in aggressive civil rights enforcement because of the “entrenched” career staff. The article proposed that “the administration should permanently replace those [section chiefs] it believes it can’t trust,” and further, that “Republican political appointees should seize control of the hiring process,” rather than leave it to career civil servants – a radical change in policy. It seems that those running the Division got the message. To date, 4 career section chiefs have been forced out of their jobs, along with 2 Deputy Chiefs, including the long serving veteran who was responsible for overseeing enforcement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The amount of expertise in civil rights enforcement that has been driven out of the Division will be difficult to recapture.

Fifty years ago, the attempt to integrate Little Rock High School demonstrated the need for the federal government to finally say “enough.” Enough of allowing the states to defy the U.S. Constitution and the courts. Enough of Congress and the Executive Branch sitting idly by while millions of Americans were denied their basic rights of citizenship. The 1957 Act and the creation of the Civil Rights Division were first steps in responding to a growing need.

For years, we in the civil rights community have looked to the Department of Justice as a leader in the fight for civil rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the Civil Rights Division that played a significant role in desegregating schools in the old South. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the Civil Rights Division that required police and fire departments across the country to open their ranks to racial and ethnic minorities and women. It was the Civil Rights Division that forced counties to give up election systems that locked out minority voters. And it was the civil rights division that prosecuted hate crimes when no local authority had the will.

Members of the Committee, today you begin a process that is long overdue. A process that will help us to understand the extent of the damage that has been done to the Civil Rights Division, and – hopefully – a roadmap for our way back to vigorous enforcement, integrity, and justice. And to a Civil Rights Division the nation can again be proud of.

Thank you.