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Context of 'December 10, 2005: Voting Rights Section in Justice Department Bars Staff Attorneys from Making Recommendations in Voting Rights Decisions'

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President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. Based on the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869), the VRA is a potent set of statutes that permanently bars direct barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities. It bans any election practice that denies the right to vote due to race, and requires areas with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval of changes in their election laws before they can take effect. The VRA forbids literacy tests (see 1896, April 25, 1898, and June 8, 1959) and other barriers to registration that have worked to stop minority voters from exercising their rights (see 1888, June 21, 1915, and February 4, 1964). Sections 2 and 5 of the VRA work together to prohibit states from establishing voting qualifications or standards that interfere with a citizen’s right to vote on a racial basis. Section 5 requires states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before altering any laws pertaining to voting—this includes changing electoral districts, voter qualification rules, and even changes in government structure such as making a formerly elective office appointive. If the changes can be seen as possibly “diluting” minority voting strength, they can be disallowed. States wishing to challenge the VRA restrictions have the opportunity to have their cases heard in federal court. Section 2 has similar, if less restrictive, provisions that apply nationally. Section 10 of the VRA takes direct aim at the Breedlove ruling from the Supreme Court (see December 6, 1937), which had legitimized poll taxes used to disenfranchise minority voters. That portion of the VRA finds that poll taxes “impose… unreasonable financial hardship” and “precludes persons of limited means from voting.” The VRA also forbids the use of literacy tests, good character tests, and other such tests used in the past to suppress minority voting. The law urges the attorney general to urge the Court to overrule Breedlove; minutes after Johnson signs the bill into law, he directs the attorney general “to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax.” The Court will find poll taxes unconstitutional in its Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections ruling (see March 24, 1966). The US Department of Justice and the federal courts now have the power to monitor problem jurisdictions and assist private citizens in seeking redress through the courts if their voting rights are infringed. Months later, the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of the VRA. [eNotes, 2004; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; Yale Law School, 2/8/2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Six lawyers and two analysts at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) conclude, in a classified memo, that the controversial Texas Congressional redistricting plan headed by Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004) is illegal. The memo states that the plan violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) by illegally diluting African-American and Hispanic voting power in two Congressional districts. The plan also eliminated several other districts that contained substantial minority voting blocs. Texas Republicans knew the plan would likely be found to be discriminatory, the lawyers write in the memo. The memo says that the Texas legislature went ahead with the plan anyway because it would maximize the number of Republicans the state would send to Congress. The memo concludes, “The State of Texas has not met its burden in showing that the proposed Congressional redistricting plan does not have a discriminatory effect.” A concurring opinion written by one of the DOJ lawyers finds: “This result quite plainly indicates a reduction in minority voting strength. The state’s argument that it has increased minority voting strength… simply does not stand up under careful analysis.”
DeLay, Aide Ignored Concerns about Voting Rights Discrimination - One of the senior aides to DeLay, James W. Ellis, is cited in the memo as pushing for the plan despite fears that the DOJ would reject it. According to the memo, Ellis and other DeLay aides forced the adoption of the plan over two other versions adopted by the Texas Legislature that would not have raised as many concerns about voting rights discrimination. The memo quotes Ellis in an October 2003 memo writing: “We need our map, which has been researched and vetted for months. The pre-clearance and political risks are the delegation’s and we are willing to assume those risks, but only with our map.” Later testimony will show that DeLay and Ellis forced last-minute changes in the map; DeLay attended many of the meetings that produced the map, and Ellis worked through the state’s lieutenant governor and a state senator to shepherd the changes that he and DeLay desired. The final changes were not necessary, the memo finds, except to advance partisan political goals.
Findings Overruled - Regardless of the findings, the lawyers and analysts’ judgment is overruled by senior officials at the DOJ, all appointed by the Bush administration. The DOJ’s civil rights division will affirm the plan as legal and valid. The memo is kept secret for almost two years, and the lawyers and analysts involved in the case, including the authors of the memo, are bound to silence under an unusual gag rule. The DOJ is under no legal burden to accept the findings of the memo, but historically, such findings are given great weight in DOJ rulings. Former Justice Department lawyer Mark Posner later says that it is “highly unusual” for the DOJ to overrule a unanimous finding such as this one: “In this kind of situation, where everybody agrees at least on the staff level… that is a very, very strong case. The fact that everybody agreed that there were reductions in minority voting strength, and that they were significant, raises a lot of questions as to why it was” approved. [US Department of Justice, 12/12/2003 pdf file; Washington Post, 12/2/2005] In December 2005, the Washington Post will reveal the existence of the memo (see December 2, 2005). Days after the Post article, Posner will write an article for the prestigious legal Web site FindLaw that will opine that the DOJ memo was ignored for partisan political reasons, and not because of honest differences of opinion between legal experts (see December 5, 2005).

Entity Tags: Texas State Legislature, Civil Rights Division (DOJ), Mark Posner, Voting Rights Act of 1965, James W. Ellis, US Department of Justice, Washington Post, Tom DeLay

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A five-member team in the Justice Department’s civil rights division reviews a new Georgia law requiring voters to present a photo ID or buy one for $20. Four of the five members say the law will disproportionately suppress minority votes because minorities are less likely to have a driver’s license or passport. Division supervisors—Bush administration political appointees—approve the law in spite of the team’s conclusion. A judge later throws the law out, comparing it to a Jim Crow-era poll tax (see September 19, 2006). The single member of the division team who favored the law is a recent political hire, a graduate of the University of Mississippi Law School, and a member of the Federalist Society and the Christian Legal Society (see Fall 2002 and After). [Savage, 2007, pp. 297]

Entity Tags: Christian Legal Society, US Department of Justice, Federalist Society, Civil Rights Division (DOJ), Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2008 Elections

Bradley Schlozman, the head of the voting rights section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division (CRD), writes an op-ed published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution alleging that the newspaper is guilty of “confus[ing] and misrepresent[ing]” the facts surrounding his office’s approval of a controversial Georgia voter identification statute (see 2005). The voter ID law has been criticized as being discriminatory against minorities and being designed to suppress minority voting. Schlozman says that the newspaper’s publication of a leaked internal memorandum from his office was unfair, as it “was merely a draft that did not incorporate the analytical work and extensive research conducted by all the attorneys assigned to the matter.” He goes on to accuse the paper of failing to report that the memo “did not represent the recommendation of the veteran career chief of the Civil Rights Division’s voting section, to whom preclearance approval decisions are expressly delegated by federal regulation.” Schlozman says that the voter ID law is “clearly not racially retrogressive within the limited scope of the Voting Rights Act,” and denies that demanding a number of identification papers from minority voters has ever been shown to have “any adverse impact on minority voters.” Data in the leaked memo showed that a significant proportion of African-American voters would be prevented from voting by the voter ID law; Schlozman writes that “corrected data… not incorporated in the leaked memo… indicate that African-American citizens are actually slightly more likely than white citizens to possess one of the necessary forms of identification.” He concludes: “Attorneys of the voting section have worked diligently to enforce voting laws and have achieved concrete, measurable advances for a record number of minority voters. We are enormously proud of this accomplishment.” [Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 11/25/2005] The Georgia voter identification law will be overturned by a federal court as illegal and discriminatory (see September 19, 2006).

Entity Tags: Civil Rights Division (DOJ), Bradley J. Schlozman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Washington Post reports that the controversial Texas congressional redistricting plan headed by Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX—see 2002-2004) was found to be illegal by Justice Department lawyers, but their judgment was overruled by senior political appointees at the Department of Justice (DOJ) who approved the plan. The information comes from a previously undisclosed memo written in December 2003 (see December 12, 2003) and provided to the Post by, the Post writes, “a person connected to the case who is critical of the adopted redistricting map.” Six lawyers and two analysts at the DOJ found that the DeLay plan violated the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) by illegally diluting African-American and Hispanic voting power in two Congressional districts. Texas Republicans knew the plan would likely be found to be discriminatory, the lawyers wrote in the memo, but went ahead with the plan anyway because it would maximize the number of Republicans the state would send to Congress. In the 2004 federal elections, Texas sent five additional Republicans to the US House, helping to solidify GOP control of that body. A lawyer for the Texas Democrats and minority groups who are challenging the redistricting in court, J. Gerald Hebert, says of the DOJ memo: “We always felt that the process… wouldn’t be corrupt, but it was.… The staff didn’t see this as a close call or a mixed bag or anything like that. This should have been a very clear-cut case.” DOJ spokesman Eric W. Holland, defending the decision by senior DOJ officials to approve the plan, points to a lower-court decision in the case that affirmed the plan’s legality. “The court ruled that, in fact, the new congressional plan created a sufficient number of safe minority districts given the demographics of the state and the requirements of the law,” he says, and notes that Texas now has three African-Americans in Congress whereas in the years before redistricting, it had only two. Hebert says the DOJ’s approval of the redistricting plan was a critical factor in the court’s decision to affirm the plan. DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden accuses Hebert of engaging in what he calls “nonsensical political babble,” and says the DOJ is correct to have found that the plan has no discriminatory effects. Under both the older plan (see 2000-2002) and the DeLay plan, minority-led districts number 11, but under the DeLay plan, Texas gained two more Congressional districts, both represented by Republicans. Recently, a similar case was reported in which DOJ lawyers found a Georgia redistricting plan to be illegal, but senior political appointees overruled the legal judgment and approved the plan. A court later found the plan to be illegal. [Washington Post, 12/2/2005]

Entity Tags: Kevin Madden, Eric W. Holland, J. Gerald Hebert, US Department of Justice, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Washington Post, Tom DeLay

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Mark Posner, a law professor at American University who served in the civil rights division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for 23 years and supervised the DOJ’s “Section 5” reviews under the Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965, 1970, 1975, April 22, 1980, and June 29, 1989) for 10 years, writes an article for the prestigious legal information Web site FindLaw that says the DOJ found the controversial Texas redistricting plan (see 2002-2004) legal for purely partisan political reasons. Posner’s article is spurred by the recent revelation of a 2003 DOJ memo (see December 12, 2003 and December 2, 2005) that found the redistricting plan to be illegal, and the Washington Post’s finding that the memo was rejected by political appointees at the DOJ, who saw to it that the plan was approved by the civil rights division. Posner is more specific than the Post article, writing: “A Republican appointee overrode the staff recommendation and granted approval, allowing the plan to go into effect for the 2004 Congressional elections. In so doing, the official sided with his political party and with one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.” Posner notes that the Bush administration has defended the decision, claiming that it was merely the result of what he calls “an honest disagreement between the career and political staff about how to apply the law to a complex set of facts.” In spite of the defense, including a statement by the attorney general, Posner writes that “this is not a case of an honest disagreement between lawyers. Rather, there is strong objective evidence that politics prevailed over the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.” The civil rights division of the DOJ is required under the VRA to “pre-clear,” or approve, any redistricting plan that might result in the unwarranted dilution of minority voting strength in particular districts. Texas, as a state with a history of discriminating against its minority citizens, is one of a number of states required to obtain DOJ approval for new redistricting plans. The DOJ has examined some 435,000 election changes since 1965, Posner writes, and thusly must “follow procedures which… ensure that preclearance decisions are based on the law and the facts, and not on extraneous factors. Among other things, these procedures must guard against the temptation that some political appointees can have to decide matters based on what would benefit their political party.” The DOJ career staff play a key role in such procedures, though the assistant attorney general (AAG) for civil rights makes the final decision. Until the Texas redistricting plan, Posner writes, AAGs have generally relied on the opinions and findings of their staff to help them craft a final decision. “When the career staff unanimously recommends that preclearance be denied, the AAG almost never overrides that recommendation and approves the change. On the flip side, the staff’s unanimous preclearance recommendation always results in the change being approved.” But the Texas redistricting approval upended the usual procedure. Despite the unanimous recommendation from the staff that the DOJ block Texas from implementing the plan due to its discriminatory effect, the AAG granted approval to the plan. “The influence of politics is evident,” Posner concludes. The DOJ “significantly and substantially deviated from the decisional practice which, for nearly four decades, has served the department well in enforcing Section 5 in a fair and nonpartisan manner.… [T]he evidence points to a single conclusion: the Justice Department did not serve the interests of minority citizens in this case, but, instead, served the political interests of the Republican Party.” [FindLaw, 12/6/2005]

Entity Tags: Civil Rights Division (DOJ), Texas State Legislature, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Mark Posner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Washington Post learns that the Justice Department has barred staff attorneys from offering recommendations in major Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965) cases, a drastic change from the earlier policy, which was designed to insulate such decision from political considerations. The decision comes amid what the Post calls “growing public criticism of Justice Department decisions to approve Republican-engineered plans in Texas (see December 12, 2003, December 2, 2005, and December 5, 2005) and Georgia (see 2005, November 25, 2005, and September 19, 2006) that were found to hurt minority voters by career staff attorneys who analyzed the plans. Political appointees overruled staff findings in both cases.” In the Georgia redistricting case, a staff memo advised rejecting the Georgia plan because it required voters to show photo ID at the polls, a policy that the memo said would disenfranchise some African-American voters. Under the new policy, that recommendation was removed from the memo and was not forwarded to higher officials in the civil rights division (CRD). The DOJ has claimed the August 25 memo was “an early draft,” even though the DOJ gave “preclearance” for the Georgia plan to be adopted on August 26. A federal judge blocked the law’s implementation, calling it a return to Jim Crow-era policies. The policy was adopted by John Tanner, the head of the CRD’s voting rights section (VRS). DOJ spokesperson Eric Holland says, “The opinions and expertise of the career lawyers are valued and respected and continue to be an integral part of the internal deliberation process upon which the department heavily relies when making litigation decisions.” Tanner has recently lambasted the quality of work by the VRS staff, some of whom have been in the section for decades. Some of the staff members boycotted the staff Christmas party because they were too angry to attend, sources within the section say. Experts like Jon Greenbaum, a VRS veteran who now directs the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says that stopping staff members from making such recommendations is a significant departure and runs the risk of making the process appear more political. “It’s an attempt by the political hierarchy to insulate themselves from any accountability by essentially leaving it up to a chief, who’s there at their whim,” he says. “To me, it shows a fear of dealing with the legal issues in these cases.” Congressional Democrats are critical of the new policy and are joined by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is considering holding hearings on the Texas redistricting case. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) says, “America deserves better than a civil rights division that puts the political agenda of those in power over the interests of the people its serves.” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other DOJ officials have disagreed with the criticism, and asserted that politics play no role in civil rights decisions. Assistant Attorney General William Moschella has recently written to Specter, criticizing the Post’s coverage and claiming that the department is aggressively enforcing a range of civil rights laws. “From fair housing opportunities, equal access to the ballot box, and criminal civil rights prosecutions to desegregation in America’s schools and protection of the rights of the disabled, the division continues its noble mission with vigor,” he wrote. [Washington Post, 12/10/2005]

Entity Tags: Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Alberto R. Gonzales, Civil Rights Division (DOJ), Washington Post, William E. Moschella, Jon Greenbaum, Eric W. Holland, US Department of Justice, Arlen Specter, John Tanner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Georgia’s controversial state voter identification law, which was touted by Bradley J. Schlozman, the Justice Department’s head of the voting rights section, as not being discriminatory towards minority voters (see November 25, 2005), is declared unconstitutional by Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr., who said this law “cannot be.” The law, pushed through the Georgia legislature by Governor Sonny Perdue (R-GA) and state Republicans in order to fight what they call persistent voter fraud (see 2005), says that forcing citizens to pay money for a state voter identification card disenfranchises citizens who are otherwise qualified to vote. The state voter ID would require what the law calls “proof of citizenship.” Many poor and minority voters lack birth certificates, some because they lack the financial means to obtain them and others because they were born in a time and area in which birth certificates were not routinely issued. Rosalind Lake, an elderly and visually disabled voter, brought a lawsuit against the state because she says she is unable to drive and would not easily be able to obtain such an ID. Even though the state offered to deliver an ID to Lake’s home, her lawyer, former Governor Roy Barnes (D-GA), says others in her position would not be given such an offer. “We have a low voter participation,” he says. “We’re going to make it more difficult?” Under earlier law, Georgia voters could submit any of 17 types of identification to prove their identity. The new law poses one voter ID that would require a birth certificate. Perdue and others have cited information showing that 5,000 dead people “voted” in the eight elections preceding the 2000 elections, but Barnes notes that those votes were all cast by absentee ballots, which would not be affected by the new law. Barnes says, “This is the most sinister scheme I’ve ever seen, and it’s going on nationwide.” The law was already rejected by US District Judge Harold L. Murphy, who likened it to Jim Crow-era legal restrictions designed to stop African-Americans from voting. The Georgia General Assembly rewrote the law to remove the $20 fee for its acquisition, but Murphy refused to lift his injunction against the law. Bedford rules that the law places an unwarranted burden of proof on voters. “Any attempt by the legislature to require more than what is required by the express language of our Constitution cannot withstand judicial scrutiny,” he says. [Washington Post, 9/20/2006]

Entity Tags: T. Jackson Bedford, Jr., Bradley J. Schlozman, Roy Barnes, Harold L. Murphy, Sonny Perdue, Rosalind Lake

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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