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Profile: Eric W. Holland
Eric W. Holland was a participant or observer in the following events:
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]
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]
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