WASHINGTON - In the turbulent 1960s, lawyers from the Justice Department's new civil rights division crisscrossed the segregated South, cast as crusaders in the cause of racial equality.
Four decades later, the civil rights division is retreating from its activist roots.
Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department has abandoned lawsuits and settlements begun by prior administrations. The government has filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court opposing affirmative action and calling for a narrow interpretation of disability rights law.
Lawyers in and out the department say the civil rights division has been less aggressive in bringing new discrimination cases, particularly broad "pattern or practice" cases that tackle systemic problems. The division has filed just one such employment discrimination case in the almost three years that President Bush has been in the White House. Between two and four cases used to be filed each year.
During the Clinton administration, Justice Department lawyers recruited Marianne Manousakis, right, and Janet Caldero, left, to join a discrimination lawsuit against New York City. A settlement was reached. Now the Justice Department, under the Bush administration, is no longer defending their settlement. (KRT Photo/Gary Dunkin)
"I've been deeply disappointed in this administration," said former California Supreme Court Judge Cruz Reynoso, a Democratic appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "It seems their goal is to do as little as possible, and in that they seem to be succeeding."
Lawyers say the department has eased up on some traditional areas of civil rights enforcement, such as housing, employment and disability discrimination:
- In the almost three years of the Bush administration, the department has brought 16 employment discrimination suits, down from 24 in the final three years of the Clinton administration.
- The disability rights section initiated 701 investigations in fiscal year 2002 - a decrease of 181 from the year before - and filed 28 cases - a decrease from 37, according to a report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The drop is particularly striking because it was President Bush's father who, as president, signed the Americans with Disability Act.
- The departure earlier this year of the division's aggressive housing section chief, Joan Magagna, has led to a sharp drop in new cases. In the seven months since she left, the housing section has brought eight cases. In 2002, her last full year on the job, it brought 50 cases. Magagna chose to leave the department after she was reassigned, a move that was widely viewed as a demotion.
- The Justice Department has been seeking memoranda of understanding instead of court-sanctioned consent decrees with misbehaving police departments, which critics say don't carry the same legal weight. Only the Detroit Police Department has been placed under a consent decree for wrongdoing. The Bush administration says the new agreements are less adversarial and encourage community cooperation.
"I really think they want things to languish," said one former civil rights division attorney who left in frustration and asked not to be identified. "They don't really want the division to work."
In a few cases, Ashcroft's Justice Department has simply abandoned earlier battles against discrimination.
During the Clinton administration, Justice Department lawyers recruited Marianne Manousakis and Janet Caldero to join a discrimination lawsuit against New York City. The department won a 1999 settlement that helped both women become custodians in the New York City School District - coveted positions that involve managing the maintenance of a school building and had gone almost exclusively to white males.
But last year, when three white male custodians challenged the settlement with the help of the conservative Center for Individual Rights, the Bush administration refused to defend the settlement.
The lawyers who'd recruited the women for the lawsuit didn't even return phone calls from Manousakis and Caldero. "They were gone without even having the decency to tell us," Manousakis said.
When the two did hear back, it was from a new lawyer who insisted that the department's position hadn't changed.
"I have never heard such a case of double talk as I heard that week," Manousakis said.
Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez said the department isn't defending the case because there's no legal evidence of discrimination.
"They had enough evidence to try this case and win this case," Caldero said. "We won. Now suddenly they don't have enough evidence?"
The women are now being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. They stand to lose their seniority and benefits if they lose in court.
Civil rights lawyers said it's the only case they can recall in which the Justice Department has abandoned a case with a settlement already in place.
The Justice Department also reversed itself in Philadelphia, where it pulled out of a suit challenging a 1.5-mile running test that was preventing most women from joining the transit police force.
And in Buffalo, N.Y., the department sought to end a long-standing consent decree with the police department over hiring practices, despite questions about the test used to screen potential officers.
U.S. District Judge John Curtin, who's been overseeing the Buffalo case since it began in the 1970s, said he was surprised by the Justice Department's recent moves. In addition to trying to get out of the consent decree before he was satisfied that the new test the police were using was satisfactory, the department also opposed a plan to correct a shortfall in the number of minority cops in Buffalo.
"I think a few years ago they would not have done that," Curtin said.
Bill Lann Lee, a former head of the civil rights division under President Clinton, said he's worried that the Justice Department is undermining its credibility by reversing itself on earlier suits as the political winds shift.
"There's been a tradition of carrying on cases from previous administrations to create a sense of consistency and continuity," Lann Lee said. "It's very troubling that they are not following through on actions that were already underway. That sends a terrible signal."
Alex Acosta, the new assistant attorney general for civil rights, declined requests for an interview. Martinez, Justice's spokesman, defended the division's record, saying that in some cases the department has been opening investigations and resolving cases at a faster rate than the Clinton administration.
"To say this department has not been aggressive in protecting the civil rights of Americans is wrong," Martinez said.
He said statistics show the division has been active in investigating violations in nursing homes, mental institutions and prisons under the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act. And he said the department is settling more housing and lending discrimination cases, as well as investigating more employment discrimination cases.
The civil rights division also has won praise from Arab-American groups, among others, for its efforts to combat anti-Arab backlash in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And the division has remained active in pursuing criminal civil rights charges for crimes such as racially motivated violence and murders.
The division also is tackling the growing international problem of human trafficking. In fiscal year 2003, the Justice Department brought charges against 21 alleged human traffickers, and it has 123 investigations pending.
And until the Bush administration, the management ranks of the civil rights division had, ironically enough, been almost completely white. Minorities have been promoted under Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Critics say some of the cases the administration is taking credit for resolving were begun years earlier. And they say fewer investigations are being followed through with lawsuits.
Lawyers inside and outside the department describe a slowdown in which career lawyers investigate and recommend legal action, only to watch their recommendations sit waiting for approval from political appointees.
"I have never known morale in the division to be lower than it is today," said Paul Hancock, former head of the housing discrimination section.
What's happening may reflect growing national ambivalence about civil rights issues. Discrimination sometimes isn't always clear as it was at the lunch counters in the South in the 1960s, and there's disagreement about causes and cures. Issues such as affirmative action inspire deep ideological disagreement.
Critics of the Justice Department hope that Acosta, who took over as assistant attorney general for civil rights in August, will be more aggressive than his predecessor, Ralph Boyd. Acosta has been meeting with civil rights activists and has a solid background in civil rights work.
Others worry that Acosta - who served as Boyd's chief of staff - will continue in the anti-regulatory mode of the Bush administration. In a 1997 speech, Acosta argued that consent decrees - one of the civil rights division's strongest weapons - "must be limited."
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder