Holder’s civil rights agenda at a crossroads

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Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder will leave office with his signature civil rights agenda still a work in progress, and whether his unfinished business remains a top priority for the Justice Department depends largely on his yet-unnamed successor.

Holder has championed a broad array of initiatives to promote civil rights, from the administration’s support for same-sex marriage to changes in federal prosecutorial policies meant to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

{mosads}He has signaled an aggressive agenda in his remaining time on the job, with plans to roll out new regulations against racial profiling and to complete a national death penalty review that includes an examination of potential racial bias in executions.

But his fight for expanded voting rights is still being waged, and a series of initiatives launched in response to this summer’s fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Missouri are in their early stages.

What will become of them depends largely on the person who steps in to replace Holder, and President Obama’s selection to succeed him will speak volumes about his vision for the direction of the agency.

Advocates are pressing Obama to choose a high-profile leader who understands the agenda of civil rights groups and is willing to take bold action over the final years of the administration.

“We would like to see someone of that caliber,” NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said, adding that he is confident Holder’s replacement would fit the bill. “I don’t have any anxieties.”

While there is no clear front-runner, likely candidates for the position include Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, former White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, former Associate Attorney General Tony West and Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

Verrilli and Ruemmler are each thought to be well liked by the president, though neither has a high-profile record on civil rights issues.

Working in Verilli’s favor is the likelihood that his nomination would be seen as relatively noncontroversia; more than two-dozen Senate Republicans backed his confirmation to his current position in 2011.

Ruemmler, meanwhile, would bring strong national security credentials to the job, though she hasn’t gone through the confirmation process. That could potentially complicate the administration’s efforts to speed up the process in the event that Republicans take control of the Senate this November.

And while Verrilli has worked at the Justice Department as associate deputy attorney general, neither he nor Ruemmler have experience leading a federal department.

Neither does West, who left his position as the third-ranking Justice Department official in September. He was, however, closely involved in the DOJ’s decision to stop defending the ban on federal benefits for gay couples, a point that would sit well with many civil rights advocates.

But from a civil rights perspective, Perez might have the strongest resume, having led the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division before Obama tapped him to serve as Labor secretary. He also spent a decade working in the division, beginning in the late 1980s.

Civil rights groups are hesitant to throw their support behind a single candidate at this stage, but are keenly interested in the president’s choice.

“Someone with strong civil rights credentials would help the nation move forward on some problems that have been intransigent,” said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington legislative office. “I don’t want to see a lame duck attorney general.”

Holder has pledged to remain in office until his successor is confirmed. He has outlined an ambitious agenda for his final weeks — or months — as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

The Justice Department is preparing to roll out a new set of curbs designed to combat racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies. The new policy will go beyond race, and include considerations of ethnicity and religion. For the first time, they will apply to national security investigations.

The agency is also wrapping up a review of death penalty policies at the federal level, as well as in states around the country, following a series of mishandled executions and concerns about racial disparities.

Those measures come at the end of an eventful period at the Justice Department.

Under Holder, the agency changed its sentencing policies to keep people accused of low-level federal drug crimes from facing mandatory minimum sentences that the administration says are unduly harsh and disproportionately affect minorities.

The agency has also overseen granting federal benefits to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act — a ruling that followed the Justice Department’s decision to stop defending the law.

The court is now weighing whether to consider challenges to state laws banning gay marriage. If the Supreme Court accepts those cases, Holder has said that the DOJ would file a brief urging “heightened scrutiny” of those statutes.

“It’s the first time we’ve had this level of support and action,” said Stacey Long Simmons, director of public policy for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

But on voting rights, Holder suffered a setback with last year’s ruling by the high court overturning a portion of the Voting Rights Act designed to protect minorities from discrimination.

Since then, Holder has taken the fight for voting rights state by state, challenging laws in Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told The Hill last week that he was “always comfortable” with Holder at the agency’s helm at a time when parts of the country are “retrenching” on some issues.

“I would be a little anxious about who might replace him,” Clyburn said, citing the importance of “this administration’s willingness to challenge what’s going on in many of these states, especially in relation to voting rights.”

Also in flux is a national review Holder launched last month into racial bias at local police departments in the wake of the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Holder has ordered up separate federal probes of the shooting and of the Ferguson police force. The Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin is ongoing.

Still, civil rights advocates say they’re optimistic that the initiatives will continue under the next attorney general, considering Obama’s backing.

“It’s in the president’s interest to appoint someone to carry out the work that Holder set out to do,” Murphy said.  

Tags Eric Holder Gay Marriage Kathryn Ruemmler Obama Racial profiling Sentencing Thomas Perez United States Department of Justice United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division voting rights

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