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Profile: John Tanner
John Tanner was a participant or observer in the following events:
Bradley Schlozman, a deputy in the Justice Department’s Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division (CRD), receives an email from his supervisor, John Tanner, asking him to bring coffee for both of them to a meeting they are both scheduled to attend. Schlozman asks how Tanner likes his coffee and Tanner replies that he likes it “Mary Frances Berry style—black and bitter.” Berry, an African-American, chaired the US Commission on Civil Rights from 1993 to 2004. Schlozman forwards the email exchange to several CRD officials with the comment, “Y’all will appreciate Tanner’s response.” Shortly thereafter, he is forced to write a written apology for his action. [Washington Post, 1/13/2009]
John Tanner, the head of the civil rights division’s Voting Rights Section (VRS) in the Justice Department, writes a four-page letter to Nick A. Soulas, a civil prosecutor in Franklin County, Ohio. The letter is a notification that Tanner is ordering the closure of a VRS investigation into the unbalanced distribution of voting machines in Franklin County, which contains the large urban area of Columbus. Complaints had been filed alleging that districts with a predominance of white voters received a disparately larger number of voting machines than districts with a predominance of African-American voters. Although that disparity has been proven, Tanner writes that the disparity does not violate the Voting Rights Act (see August 6, 1965). The letter essentially defends the disparity, arguing that the use of such disparate numbers of machines is acceptable. It also praises the Franklin County Board of Elections for buying approximately 2,100 new voting machines. Sources, including a VRS staffer who left the section in late 2004, will later tell the citizen journalism project ePluribus Media (ePM) that many inside and outside the VRS found the letter “repugnant.” Moreover, they will tell the ePM researchers that the DOJ almost never writes such a letter: when it finishes an investigation it deems unworthy of pursuing, it merely sends a letter informing the involved parties that it is closing the investigation. For Tanner to write and send such a letter is highly unusual. And, Tanner’s is the only signature on the letter. No staff attorneys sign off on the letter. Sources will tell ePM that the lone signature apparently indicates that Tanner was the only person working the investigation. Section chiefs such as Tanner almost never handle investigations. ePM will say that the letter presents what it calls “convoluted excuses for why black voters didn’t have enough machines and white voters did.” [US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 6/29/2005 ; ePluribus Media, 5/7/2007]
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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