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Trump, Biden probes draw more notice. But Garland has boosted focus on civil rights.

The unanimous verdict was a huge Justice Department victory: Leaders of the extremist Oath Keepers group were convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But Attorney General Merrick Garland did not want the news to completely overshadow another court decision that November day: A federal judge in Mississippi had approved the department’s emergency intervention into a water system crisis in the capital city of Jackson.

“I want to share more about these two significant matters,” Garland said at a news conference, giving the topics equal billing.

Aides said the approach reflected Garland’s conviction that the department’s civil rights work is just as essential as its high-profile probes of former president Donald Trump and efforts to overturn the 2020 election, especially as a deeply polarized country faces spiking hate crimes, heightened scrutiny of abusive policing, attempts to restrict voting access and a judicial rollback of federal abortion protections.

Those challenges and others have led Garland to push for a department-wide focus on civil rights cases that is drawing praise from longtime 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. Some civil rights leaders said the 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 — who last week found himself in the spotlight for a classified-documents investigation involving President Biden, in addition to the Trump probes — has restored “an energy and focus on racial justice that is revitalizing,” even as hate crimes and other problems fester.

Conservatives have greeted Garland’s efforts with indignation, saying the department is selectively enforcing the law based on a liberal political agenda. Republicans, who just assumed 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 through the creation of its first-ever Office of Environmental Justice. Garland cast the department’s successful bid to install a third-party monitor in Jackson — 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 said in an interview in December at Justice Department headquarters, “and I want people to understand that’s a priority of the department.”

In recent weeks, the Justice Department reached a settlement with a California jurisdiction 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; won a $31 million redlining settlement with a Los Angeles bank over charges that it discriminated against minorities; 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.

Garland has used some of the department’s higher-profile cases to try to reassure the public. In May, he 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.

Hate is “clearly on the rise. It makes people worried and afraid, and the job of the Justice Department is to protect people,” Garland said in the interview. “It’s important for people to see the Justice Department … is on these things and will not let them go.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said Garland called him in January 2022 after a gunman took four worshipers hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Tex.

“He made it clear that this was unacceptable, and that his Justice Department is broadly committed to taking actions to stop the spread of extremism,” Greenblatt said. “This has been an issue for him in a way that’s not just professional but clearly personal.”

Garland has spoken often about how his family’s history of religious persecution — his grandmother immigrated to the United States to escape the Holocaust, during which two of her siblings were killed — motivated him to pursue a law enforcement career. In his conference room, where the walls are adorned with oil paintings of past attorneys general, including Robert F. Kennedy, he recalled watching news coverage of the mass social justice protests in 2020, while he was still a federal judge.

The outcry helped persuade him to explore a potential return to government service, he said, after nearly a quarter-century on the bench.

“I’m seeing people die — Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, all of whom are clearly having their constitutional rights violated right in front of everybody — and I’m sitting as a passive judge, which is the job of a judge,” Garland said, referring to three Black people whose killings sparked the protests. “It’s the pandemic, so I’m doing this mostly from my attic. And I just feel like, if you see injustice, you should do something about it. And sitting there alone didn’t seem to be enough.”

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 Floyd and 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 issued a memo that all but banned the use of the tactic. Garland rescinded that memo shortly after taking office.

The department also took action to hold individual officers accountable, winning convictions against four former Minneapolis officers for violating Floyd’s civil rights. Three were found guilty of failing to intervene after the fourth, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

The Minneapolis case “was an ingenious prosecution because the department recognized that a lot of the bad policing isn’t evil actors like Chauvin … but rather officers who watch and don’t intervene,” said Butler, the former federal prosecutor. “That’s a more insidious problem.”

In August, Justice filed civil rights charges against four former Louisville officers in connection with Taylor’s death. Three of them are accused of falsifying information on a search warrant. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the civil rights division, said the department’s strategy “signals our deep commitment to ensuring accountability at every stage of the process.”

Under Garland, the department also has sought to rein in abuse within federal law enforcement agencies, mandating that federal agents wear body cameras when executing preplanned arrests and prohibiting chokeholds and no-knock entry in most cases.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco ordered the closure of a federal prison in Manhattan in 2021 after making an unannounced visit to examine conditions. She announced reforms amid findings by a Senate committee that federal corrections officers had sexually abused female inmates.

In a memo in November, Monaco instructed prosecutors to use “all available tools” to hold federal authorities accountable for misconduct.

“You might say, ‘Why do we have to make that point?’” Monaco said in an interview. “But the fact is these are not easy cases; they’re not often the type of cases [prosecutors] are anxious to do.”

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. But some cautioned that the department has been stretched thin.

Damon T. Hewitt, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, pointed to emerging battlegrounds — including fights over social media disinformation and efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory — as areas where the agency must increase its litigation efforts.

“If there were not so many fires, then I think there would be a much more pronounced story,” Hewitt said. “They have to play whack-a-mole, like we do. I feel like they’ve met the moment in terms of responsiveness. The question is: What else can be done?”

Conservative activists, in turn, accuse Garland of overreaching. They lambasted the department for dropping a Trump-era lawsuit over Yale University’s race-based admissions policies and accused Garland of targeting conservative parents in a memo he sent to the FBI and U.S. attorneys warning of increasing threats to school personnel.

But it is on voting and abortion rights where the political and legal terrain has shifted most dramatically in recent years, aided by a conservative-majority Supreme Court that gutted key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 and, last summer, overturned the federal right to an abortion.

Those decisions have enabled states to pass more-restrictive laws and stripped federal prosecutors of some of the strongest enforcement statutes.

“We are in a world more polarized than ever,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the department’s No. 3 official, who oversaw Justice’s civil rights division during the Obama administration. “We’re confronting new challenges over the right to vote and the undermining of democratic institutions and the reproductive stuff. We’re looking at it as a whole-of-department effort.”

Garland has doubled the number of attorneys in the Justice Department’s voting division and sent 64 election monitors to jurisdictions in 24 states during the November midterms, a nearly 50 percent increase over the 2020 presidential election cycle. The department has sued Texas, Georgia and Arizona over restrictive voting laws, cases that are pending.

But civil rights advocates said a Justice Department task force launched in June 2021 to investigate threats to election workers has not done enough. That task force has reviewed more than 1,000 reported incidents, and prosecutors have filed nine criminal cases, Justice officials said.

Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, praised the voting rights lawsuits as robust, but questioned whether the threats task force has been “overly cautious in terms of looking for cases where they have a guaranteed victory.”

A Justice Department official said the agency is moving the task force to a “consultative role,” with U.S. attorneys’ offices taking the lead on prosecutions.

Federal authorities “need to both show they’re being aggressive and need to communicate that the safety of election officials is a priority,” Weiser said.

Conservatives have accused Garland of selectively enforcing the law.

Federal prosecutors in August won a preliminary injunction against Idaho to block one part of a law that imposed a near-total ban on abortions. Garland named Gupta to lead a reproductive rights task force to monitor changes to state and local laws in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade. And the department charged at least 25 people last year, in five cases, with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act by blocking access to reproductive health-care facilities.

But Republican lawmakers say federal prosecutors have not showed a similar interest in investigating attacks on antiabortion pregnancy centers and Christian churches. Eleven GOP senators and 29 House members signed a letter in October to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray denouncing “overzealous prosecutions under the FACE Act.”

The Justice Department is “putting politics ahead of even enforcement of the law,” said Hans A. von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There’s a difference between shifting priorities [from the Trump administration] and saying you will not enforce the law.”

Civil rights advocates said some of the department’s civil rights initiatives, still in the early stages, could pay greater dividends with continued attention and investment. But they cautioned that Republican control of the House will make it more politically difficult.

In recent weeks, Garland has stepped up his public messaging, participating in a Justice Department conference commemorating the 65th anniversary of the civil rights division and speaking out against bigotry during remarks at the lighting of the National Menorah.

Hate “is a part of American history that goes up and down,” Garland said in the interview, “and we need to put the resources of the Justice Department into making sure that it goes down again and doesn’t become so terrible that it tears the country apart.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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