A prominent civil rights organization is speaking out against the U.S. Justice Department's delay of court proceedings over its proposed police reform agreement with the city of Baltimore, saying the move raises "grave concerns" about its commitment to the deal.
"It was jarring," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, of the Justice Department's request on Friday to postpone a scheduled hearing on the consent decree in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "In Baltimore, we know that the community has been long awaiting relief."
The request, which came just hours after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, was granted by Judge James K. Bredar, who noted the city did not object. The hearing is now scheduled for Feb. 1.
Bredar has asked both the Justice Department and the city to respond to a series of questions he has on the consent decree, including about its cost, the timeline for compliance, its relation to the local police union's collective bargaining agreement with the city, public input and other matters.
Bredar must approve the deal if it is to become binding.
In their motion to delay the hearing, Justice Department officials wrote that the agency had "experienced a transition in leadership" with Trump's inauguration, and required "additional time in order to brief the new leadership of the Department on the case at bar and the proposed Consent Decree before making any representations to the Court."
They wrote that the request was "made in good faith and not for the purposes of delay."
Clarke said the Trump Justice Department's moves to delay the Baltimore case and a separate case governing voter identification in Texas were unusual, and "raise grave concerns that the department may be reversing course on important civil rights matters."
"These are two of the most closely watched civil rights matters in the country," she said.
Clarke said both matters have been handled by professional, career attorneys in the Justice Department, whose judgement should be trusted rather than second-guessed.
Trump's nominee for attorney general, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has yet to be confirmed. He has expressed a commitment to uphold the nation's laws, but also skepticism of the Justice Department's oversight of local police departments in the past.
Sessions has also drawn sharp criticism from civil rights organizations, who have fought his confirmation and alleged his track record shows a hostility to civil rights and voter protections. He has rejected those criticisms as unfounded.
The Trump administration has not responded to requests for comment on the Baltimore consent decree.
Clarke said Sessions' nomination is "looming over" the Baltimore case and every other civil rights case before the Justice Department.
"Jeff Sessions has a record that demonstrates long and consistent hostility to civil rights, and we intend to hold this Justice Departemnt accountable to make sure that it carries forth its obligation to uphold our nation's civil rights laws," she said.