For months, the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder have been promising to restore the Justice Department's role in protecting minority rights. Key to that effort is having a leader for the Civil Rights Division, which is dedicated to preserving voting rights, fighting discriminatory lending practices, and protecting Americans from discrimination in housing and employment. But confirmation of the administration's nominee, Thomas Perez, has been held up in the Senate for six months.
Perez, a former prosecutor who served in the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division between 1988 and 1998, is a darling of civil-rights groups. Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights -- a civil-rights coalition that includes everyone from the NAACP to the National Women's Law Center -- calls Perez "arguably the most qualified candidate ever nominated." Perez, if confirmed, would be a marked contrast from the leadership of the Civil Rights Division during the Bush administration.
"The Civil Rights Division had a history of functioning in a bipartisan or nonpartisan way regardless of who was in the White House or who was appointed to head the division," says Henderson. "That ended abruptly with the presidency of George W. Bush."
The last administration was difficult for career attorneys and legal analysts in the Justice Department as a whole. Political appointees during the Bush administration -- or as former Bush Civil Rights Division head Bradley Schlozman referred to them, "real Americans" -- shifted the division's emphasis away from its historic focus on protecting the rights of minorities to pursuing "reverse discrimination" cases against whites and religious discrimination cases against Christians. A 2008 Justice Department inspector general report found that Schlozman violated civil-service laws by considering political affiliation in hiring decisions and made false statements to Congress about it -- but the Justice Department recently declined to reverse a Bush-era decision not to prosecute.
The shift from protecting the powerless to protecting the powerful during the Bush administration, former Justice Department lawyers say, was unprecedented. "I was in several Republican administrations," says Joe Rich, a former voting-rights section chief, now working for the Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights. "I've never seen it like that before." The politicization led to an exodus of frustrated career attorneys from the division.
Rich says having a career civil-rights attorney at the helm of the Civil Rights Division is "badly needed" to restore morale and demonstrate that the politicization of the Bush years is gone forever. But Perez's stellar civil-rights bona fides may be exactly what's holding up his appointment. Republicans have long considered the very existence of a Civil Rights Division an affront. John Tanner, head of the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division under Bush, once complained that applicants to the Civil Rights Division under prior administrations "were subjected to the litmus test of whether they were a "civil-rights person." Perez is a civil-rights person. That, for Senate Republicans, may be the problem.
Perez is the child of Dominican immigrants who fled the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and sought asylum in the United States. Perez's parents settled in Buffalo, New York. Perez attended Brown and graduated Harvard Law in 1987. After clerking for a federal judge in Colorado, Perez joined the Justice Department in 1988 as a prosecutor in the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division.
The Justice Department sometimes assigns lawyers to work as policy advisers on the Hill, and during his tenure Perez was detailed as an adviser to Ted Kennedy on civil-rights issues. In 1996, Perez received a Distinguished Service Award -- the second highest honor in the department -- for his work prosecuting three men associated with a neo-Nazi group in Lubbock, Texas, who shot three black men, one of whom died, in an attempt to spark a "race war." Perez was promoted to deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights during the Clinton administration.
Perez was known for mentoring young lawyers in his section and for being a "dedicated civil-rights enforcer" whose commitment to using the law to help the less fortunate didn't end with his tenure at the Justice Department. During his time at Justice, Perez began volunteering for CASA de Maryland, an immigrant support and advocacy organization formed to help Central American immigrants fleeing turmoil in their home countries. In addition to advocacy on behalf of immigrants, the group provides legal and social services -- such as HIV testing and job training -- to immigrants regardless of whether they are undocumented. After Perez left Justice at the end of the Clinton administration, he briefly joined CASA de Maryland's Board of Directors in 2002 as president.
Perez became a law professor at the University of Maryland in 2001, and in 2002 he ran successfully for a County Council seat in Montgomery County, becoming the council's first Hispanic member. In 2005 he sponsored local legislation to prevent predatory lenders from targeting minority communities. Now Perez looks prescient, but at the time, the law was challenged by the Bush administration on the grounds that it would "usurp federal authority to establish uniform rules." Republican councilmember Howard Denis opposed Perez's legislation -- but he nevertheless describes Perez as a "tireless worker," who made a special effort to reach out to Denis, the lone Republican on the council.
Perez was among a group of voting-rights advocates who helped usher through the 2006 renewal of the Voting Rights Act. After he was disqualified from a run for Maryland attorney general because he had not practiced law in the state for 10 years, Perez was tapped to serve as secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"He is at his core, about helping those who are not at the table in our society," says Leon Rodriguez, county attorney for Montgomery County and a longtime friend of Perez. "He's been about helping the new immigrant, the physically and mentally challenged, helping minorities, helping them capture their part of the American dream."
In short, Perez is something of a progressive's dream appointment -- he's fought for minority and worker rights, stood up to the mortgage-lending industry when few others predicted how their unscrupulous practices would lead to economic disaster, and perhaps most important, he's a career civil-rights attorney who is familiar with how the civil-rights division is supposed to work -- with an emphasis on the expertise of career attorneys, not the agendas of the political appointees who supervise them.
Oddly, part of what seems to be holding up Perez's nomination is a case Perez had nothing to do with: the Justice Department's recent decision to dismiss a 2008 voter-intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party -- a decision now under internal investigation. Some attorneys in the Voting Rights Section see the case as part of the leftover politicization from the Bush years, while Republicans have used the case to argue that the department is now being politicized by Democrats.
Perez's supporters argue that because he wasn't even employed by the Justice Department at the time, it's absurd to hold up his confirmation because of the Black Panther case. "It just shows you how political and specious the arguments against him are," says Henderson.
Senate Republicans have also expressed concern about Perez's affiliation with what they see as "radical groups" -- namely CASA de Maryland, whose work on behalf of immigrants is seen by conservatives as controversial. During Perez's Senate hearings, Sen. Jeff Sessions accused the group of "promoting illegal immigration" because they published a pamphlet informing undocumented immigrants about their legal rights if they are caught in an immigration raid.
The delay, civil-rights advocates say, is affecting the Obama administration's ability to restore the Civil Rights Division. "It's hard to implement a strategy for how the division's going to operate without the head of the division there," says Jon Greenbaum, a former Voting Rights Section attorney who is now legal director at Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. "There are a lot of decisions that aren't being made because they're waiting for the head person to come in."