The U.S. Senate voted 51-48 on May 25 to confirm Kristen Clarke to head the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division. She will lead a Civil Rights Division (CRD) of the DOJ that has become less a race-neutral enforcer of civil rights laws and more a government wing of progressive organizations. A bill currently before Congress would give that politicized division sweeping powers over North Carolina’s elections.
Christopher Coates, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who served in the Voting Section in the Civil Rights Division, brought the discriminatory rift in the DOJ to light in 2010 testimony to Congress. While Coates worked on several cases enforcing the Voting Rights Act, he ran into resistance from within the DOJ on one case: United States vs. Ike Brown. What made the case unusual, and what caused opposition in the DOJ to pursuing it, was that the victims were white and the main defendant was black.
Coates offered several specific examples (page 5 of Coates’ testimony):
I talked with one career [DOJ] attorney with whom I had previously worked successfully in a voting case and ask[sic] him whether he might be interested in working on the Ike Brown case. He informed me in no uncertain terms that he had not come to the Voting Section to sue African American defendants. One of the social scientists who worked in the Voting Section and whose responsibility it was to do past and present research into a local jurisdiction’s history flatly refused to participate in the investigation.
Despite that opposition, Coates and his colleagues successfully prosecuted the case. During the investigation and trial, they found that Brown and his colleagues had committed abuses such as illegally marking absentee ballots, illegally altering voting rolls, and illegally recruiting candidates from outside their districts. The DOJ called it “the most extreme case of racial exclusion seen by the (department’s) Voting Section in decades.”
Despite the gravity of what was happening in the Ike Brown case, Coates noted that several prominent civil rights groups opposed race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. In doing so, they were acting “not as civil rights groups, but as special interest lobbies for racial and ethnic minorities.” Chief among those opposed to the DOJ’s prosecution of the Ike Brown case was Kristin Clarke (page 8 of Coates’ testimony):
Furthermore, one of the groups who had opposed the CRD’s civil prosecution of the Ike Brown case the most adamantly was the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), through its Director of Political Participation, Kristin Clark [sic]. Ms. Clarke has spent a considerable amount of her time attacking the CRD’s decision to file and prosecute the Ike Brown case.
The same Kristin Clarke who so vigorously opposed the DOJ applying the Voting Rights Act in a race-neutral manner will oversee the division charged with enforcing that act. Her appointment exacerbates the politicization of a Civil Rights Division of the DOJ that progressive organizations have already captured.
Even worse, there is a bill before Congress that would grant Clarke’s already politicized CRD veto power over North Carolina’s election laws.
HR4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would reinstate preclearance, among other things, which would give the DOJ the power to order some states, including North Carolina, not to enforce reform to election laws. Preclearance was part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Some states were subject to preclearance due to a formula based on low voter registration rates and turnout by racial minorities. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby vs. Holder (2013) because the formula used to justify the federal veto of state election laws no longer applied. For example, voter registration and turnout rates between blacks and whites are now similar in southern states.
A DOJ armed with preclearance and advised by a leftist dominated CRD would endanger North Carolina election laws, including popular reforms like voter ID.
Given the Civil Rights Division’s continued leftward lurch with the appointment of Kristen Clarke, the attempt to renew the DOJ’s preclearance powers is a partisan power grab.