Top civil rights attorney promises increased enforcement of discrimination laws

by Teresa Watanabe (LA Times)
October 31, 2009


The nation’s top civil rights attorney vowed Friday to step up enforcement of laws against housing bias, hate crimes, racially targeted predatory lending and other discriminatory acts in what he called a new era of “transformation and restoration.”

Thomas Perez, U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, also said during a keynote address to an Asian Pacific American civil rights conference in Los Angeles that he would “depoliticize decision-making” and work to restore trust between career attorneys and political appointees in the Justice Department.

Perez said attempts to replace career civil rights lawyers with conservative Republicans, as documented in a U.S. inspector general’s report this year, was the “most problematic” of the Bush administration’s policies on civil rights. Between 2003 and 2007, he said, 70% of lawyers left the department’s civil rights division.

But that era, Perez said, is over.

“The civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice is open for business,” he said to applause and cheers from hundreds of participants at the conference, sponsored by four leading Asian Pacific American organizations.

Perez lauded the Bush administration’s work on ensuring voter access to bilingual ballots, combating religious discrimination and cracking down on human trafficking.

But he said that too few cases were filed to challenge alleged discrimination in other areas, such as voting practices, voter registration procedures and what he called “toxic predatory lending” targeted at minority consumers.

Such lending, he said, helped exacerbate the foreclosure crisis as the federal government failed to use fair housing and equal credit laws to attack the practices.

In contrast, Perez said, the Obama administration planned to use all legal tools available to enforce all civil rights laws.

“There are no buffet lines. . . . We are not here to pick and choose which laws to enforce,” he said. “We’re going to enforce all of the laws.”

Perez said the Obama administration’s renewed emphasis on civil rights enforcement was reflected in a 20% proposed budget increase that would allow his office to add more than 100 new staff members. At present, more than 300 lawyers in the division enforce laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, religion and national origin. Lawyers also oversee voting-rights cases, which are likely to increase after next year’s census and the resulting redistricting.

Perez, a 48-year-old Dominican American sworn into office two weeks ago, worked for 12 years as a civil rights attorney under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He most recently served as Maryland’s labor secretary.

His address highlighted a two-day conference featuring workshops on labor, immigration, education, health and other issues. It was organized by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Los Angeles, the Asian American Institute of Chicago, the Asian American Justice Center of Washington, D.C., and the Asian Law Caucus of San Francisco.

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