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Garland's DOJ Targets Civil Rights Amid High-Profile Politics Cases

Attorney General Merrick Garland believes that his department’s civil rights work is just as essential as its high-profile probes of former president Trump and efforts to overturn the 2020 election, especially as a polarized nation faces spiking hate crimes, heightened scrutiny of abusive policing, attempts to restrict voting access and a judicial rollback of federal abortion protections.


Such challenges have led Garland to push for a department-wide focus on civil rights cases that is drawing praise from advocates, even as they worry that the litany of injustices the agency is trying to address could overwhelm available resources and muddy its sense of mission, reports the Washington Post.


Some civil rights leaders said Justice Department must move more forcefully to address new challenges — including threats to election workers and social media disinformation aimed at suppressing minority voters — and expressed frustration over the pace of efforts to make the criminal justice system more equitable.


“I think it’s a ‘best of times, worst of times’ scenario,” said Georgetown University law professor and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler. He said Garland has restored “an energy and focus on racial justice that is revitalizing,” even as hate crimes and other problems fester.


Conservatives say DOJ department is selectively enforcing the law based on a liberal political agenda. Republicans, with a the majority in the House of Representatives, are pledging to launch investigations and hold hearings that could slow or derail some of the department’s key civil rights initiatives.


Justice officials say Garland has sought to broaden how the agency views civil rights work, including the creation of its first-ever Office of Environmental Justice. Garland cast the successful federal to install a third-party monitor in Jackson, Ms., — where a system failure in August cut off water for more than 150,000 residents — as a racial justice victory in a city that is nearly 83 percent Black.


“The protection of civil rights is extremely important to me,” Garland told the Post, “and I want people to understand that’s a priority of the department.”

In recent weeks, the Justice Department reached a settlement in California to repeal a rental housing program that authorities said targeted Black and Latino tenants for eviction; won a hate-crimes conviction against a New York man who assaulted a Jewish counterprotester at a pro-Palestinian demonstration; moved to eliminate federal charging and sentencing disparities on cocaine use that disproportionately targeted minority communities, and issued a legal opinion that the U.S. Postal Service may deliver abortion pills to people in states that have banned or sharply restricted the procedure.


In May, Garland announced a federal hate-crimes investigation hours after a White gunman killed 10 Black people in a Buffalo supermarket. Within weeks, federal prosecutors charged Payton Gendron on 27 hate-crime and gun-related counts.


It is one of about 60 hate-crime cases the department has brought since President Biden took office — an increase from previous administrations but still a tiny fraction of the thousands of cases reported each year.


Among Garland’s first major actions was to launch sweeping “pattern or practice” investigations into police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville, whose police had killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, respectively. Those investigations are expected to result in court-approved consent decrees requiring each city to make extensive reforms. Justice has opened six more investigations into other local police agencies.

The moves highlighted one of the initial challenges for the Garland-led Justice Department: rebuilding a civil rights tool kit that had been downgraded by the Trump administration. Trump aides viewed consent orders as federal overreach, and in 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions iall but banned the use of the tactic. Garland rescinded that order shortly after taking office.


Civil rights leaders said Garland and his team deserve credit for restoring a sense of mission after the Trump administration pursued far fewer civil rights investigations. Some cautioned that the department has been stretched thin.

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