A confirmation fight for a challenging job

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -In the annals of the capital's acid partisanship, their names are boldfaced: candidates for America's highest civil rights post who never got confirmed.

During the last Democratic administration, conservatives succeeded in blocking Senate approval of Lani Guinier and Bill Lann Lee to head the civil rights division at the Justice Department.

Now, they're gearing up to put Thomas E. Perez, a Maryland lawyer selected for the job by President Barack Obama, through the grinder. Senate sources predict that the state's labor secretary will be confirmed for the federal post, but history suggests that it won't be without a fight.

"This is arguably the most difficult position to fill in the federal government when it comes to Senate confirmation," said Roger Clegg, a former official in the civil rights division.

"Both sides feel so strongly about the issues that the division handles, and in particular, the party bases on each side feel so strongly about the issues," said Clegg, a conservative veteran of Clinton-era confirmation fights.

The division's more than 300 lawyers enforce civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, religion and national origin across a range of areas. Lawyers also oversee voting-rights cases, which are likely to increase after next year's census and the resulting redistricting.

The choice of Perez to be the nation's leading civil rights enforcer came as a surprise. The White House made the announcement late on a Friday afternoon, timing that is often used to limit political fallout.

Some Latino civil rights advocates reacted angrily, viewing Perez as a replacement for a highly regarded Mexican-American civil rights lawyer in Los Angeles who had been expected to get the nomination. Cruz Reynoso, a retired California jurist who helped lead a review of key federal agencies for Obama's transition team, expressed concern that the president had withdrawn the expected appointment of Thomas Saenz to avoid a confirmation fight over immigration issues.

Immigration is a minor responsibility for the division's lawyers, but the topic is likely to be a focus in the confirmation of Perez, a Dominican-American who would be the second Hispanic to lead the office. For seven years, he was a director of CASA of Maryland, an immigrant rights group, and served as its president in 2002. That year, CASA lobbied the General Assembly against a proposal by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to make it tougher for immigrants to get a Maryland driver's license.

Alan Clayton, a Perez supporter, said the nominee's association with CASA would make it tougher for him to get Senate confirmation, describing the Maryland nonprofit as "very, very hard-core" on immigrant rights issues.

Perez "is going to get hit by the individuals who don't like pro-immigration policies," said Clayton, director of equal employment opportunity for the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association.

Todd Gaziano, a lawyer who directs the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said Perez also could suffer from lingering anger over Obama's failure to appoint Saenz, even though the groups that protested the decision later endorsed Perez.

"The bad blood in the water still may affect this guy's confirmation. It may affect the enthusiasm some people have" for Perez, said Gaziano, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Affirmative action, a central focus of the confirmation fights of the 1990s, could also play a role.

"I was just reading a law review that Perez has written that was very favorable toward the use of racial preferences," said Clegg, an advocate of colorblind public policies.

Obama "has indicated that he's not entirely comfortable with racial preferences," Clegg said. Perez "may be more liberal than the president himself is."

The president has pledged to "reinvigorate federal civil rights enforcement" and prosecute more cases of housing and employment bias and voting discrimination against blacks. His budget contains an 18 percent budget increase for the civil rights division, which became a source of controversy during the Bush administration

An inspector-general's report released this year detailed efforts under President George W. Bush to replace career lawyers in the civil rights division with those with conservative Republican credentials. Obama has promised to "restore professionalism" to the division.

The first big challenge for Perez, who began his career in the office he's been picked to lead, would be to boost morale, said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Tom is somebody that I'm convinced knows how to repair that department," said Shelton, referring to Perez's background there, his years as an aide to Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and his work as the leader of Obama's transition team at the Justice Department.

He said that Perez and Eric H. Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, a former civil rights lawyer, are "kindred spirits." Holder has promised to oversee "vigorous enforcement" of civil rights and recently said that rebuilding the civil rights division is "priority one right now."

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, where the confirmation hearing will take place, said Perez would have "a real challenge ahead of him" in running the division "because of the way the Justice Department was operating."

"They had a hard time maintaining and attracting people dedicated to enforcing civil rights," Cardin said.

Obama has promised to "rid the department of ideologues and political cronies" and replace them with lawyers who "prosecute civil rights violations and employment discrimination and hate crimes."

But Cardin and former Justice Department officials played down the idea that Perez could weed out Bush-era attorneys who hold career positions and have civil-service protection.

"Hopefully, they can be trained and turned into good lawyers," said Joseph D. Rich, a former head of the voting rights section who left the Justice Department in 2005 after more than 35 years.

In interviews, present and former lawyers at the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill said that, under Obama, the civil rights division will step up prosecutions of police misconduct and racial profiling.

The administration might give the division added responsibilities by promoting legislation to make voter registration laws more uniform and make it easier for people to vote.

Other areas that could get renewed attention include conditions in prisons, mental health facilities and nursing homes, the last of which could mesh with Perez's work as a University of Maryland law professor on the relationship between health care and civil rights.

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