Under the Obama administration the Justice Department has opened wide-ranging investigations of 23 police departments, including those in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson. It’s enforcing 19 agreements, including 14 court-enforceable consent decrees.
While those agreements are unlikely to be reversed, new attorneys could be lax in enforcing them or in requiring meaningful change when additional police departments come under scrutiny, Smith said. And different leadership may see less value in some of the community meetings and round-table discussions promoted by Justice Department officials as a way to seek reconciliation between police and minorities.
Also subject to change is the department’s overall approach to the thousands of drug prosecutions it brings each year, embodied in a 2013 policy initiative known that discouraged prosecutors from seeking harsh prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.
A new administration might also seek changes on the national security front, including how terrorism cases are prosecuted and broader surveillance powers — particularly of Muslims.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged the prospect for change Thursday, saying in a speech that while “some policies and priorities may shift over the span of time or the turn of the electoral wheel.”
Career attorneys throughout the Justice Department, including at the Civil Rights Division, are intended as a stabilizing and apolitical force across different administrations, but there hasn’t always been a clear line. A 2008 inspector general report identified instances in the Bush administration when the Civil Rights Division considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring career attorneys or assigning cases.
But it’s the department’s political appointees, who routinely change with presidential administrations, that “set the tone and the direction and determine the vigor of civil rights enforcement,” Romero said.
At the Civil Rights Division, that includes its leader, Vanita Gupta, a former ACLU attorney who earlier in her career led an effort to overturn wrongful convictions of drug defendants in Texas.
Under her watch, the federal government has routinely become involved in state and local matters that officials believe brush up against constitutional protections.
That includes a directive to schools that they permit students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity, and a policy document discouraging municipal courts from jailing citizens for nonpayment of fines and fees. In an Idaho case, the department also argued that local police can’t arrest the homeless for sleeping in public, and worked in Tennessee to get juvenile suspects access to attorneys.
New department leadership could well take different stances on issues like those, or steer clear of federal intervention altogether. And while federal civil rights statutes will surely remain on the books for enforcement, advocates are concerned that their causes won’t have the same commitment they’ve had under President Barack Obama.
“We intend to fight, we intend to ensure that we do not go backwards,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told reporters Thursday. “We believe that we have the Constitution and the laws of our nation on our side.”
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