National Press Club

Civil Rights Division’s work important but increasingly politicized, panel says

September 15, 2017 | By Ufuoma Otu |

Four distinguished former assistant attorneys general for civil rights spanning several presidential administrations spoke about their tenures at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division at a Headliners Newsmaker event late last week.

They addressed top civil rights matters including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), policing and racial profiling, LGBT rights, and President Trump’s nomination of Eric Dreiband to serve in their former role. However, voting rights drew the most attention.

Stephen Pollak, who served during the Lyndon Johnson administration from 1965 to 1969, highlighted one of the most notable achievements of the Civil Rights Division: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Unlike the present, the president and leaders of both parties in Congress worked together, he said. “I was privileged to see firsthand the passage of the bill which was nearly unanimous except for the southern Democrats,” said Pollak, who is on the board of directors of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“It’s beyond disheartening to contrast this history with the voting wars of the day,” Pollak said. “Prior unity of purpose has collapsed.”

Stan Pottinger, who led the Division from 1970 to 1977, emphasized its bipartisanship. “Watch what the division does, not necessarily what critics say,” he advised. Many things you hear “are metaphors as opposed to literal policy statements.”

John Dunne, a state senator for 24 years before becoming assistant attorney general from 1990 to 1993 during the George H. W. Bush administration, noted how his team dealt with tension at the DOJ between people who hadn’t taken kindly to the enforcement of civil rights laws from the Reagan administration and carry-overs who were still in the White House observing his team's performance.

“The Division has shown that where there is hard-fighting, intelligent leadership, it can be an enormous force for good,” Dunne said.

Vanita Gupta, who served under the Obama administration from late 2014 to early 2017, recalled arriving at the DOJ “weeks after Michael Brown had been shot and killed on the streets of Ferguson” and the unrest that ensued. “Every week it seemed there was a new video that was going viral,” she said, adding technology has changed how the American community processes what’s happening in the criminal justice system.

But the Division is by no means a sole actor, and the “panoply of organizations won't be idle,” Pollak said. He hopes “facts” will still play a role in what the Division presents to the nation.

Gupta called the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally and the Trump administration’s response “distressing,” but remains optimistic the courts and non-profits that litigate and advocate can help ensure American values and the rule of law are maintained.

Pollak opposed President Trump’s decision regarding DACA, saying “it’s time for Congress to act.”

Dunne said “ending DACA is a cruel change of heart by the U.S. government.”

“It’s difficult to understand” that the country can’t have a sensible immigration policy and keep out criminal elements, Pottinger said. “Why we can’t have such a policy is a disgrace.”

(Updated to correct Stephen Pollak's title in the fourth paragraph.)