What's Next for Civil Rights Division?

For a look at the future of the Civil Rights Division, NPR's Tony Cox talks with Dan Eggen, who covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post.

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TONY COX, host:

Now, let's take a look at where the Civil Rights Division might go in the future. We are joined by Dan Eggen who covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post.

Dan, welcome.

Mr. DAN EGGEN (Staff Writer, The Washington Post): Glad to be here.

COX: Let's start with this. Michael Mukasey is the new attorney general. What changes do you see happening during his tenure, which could be short, as it relates to the Civil Rights Division and enforcement?

Mr. EGGEN: He has not laid out anything specifically, but they do - the previous head of the Civil Rights Division stepped down just before Alberto Gonzales stepped down, and so he is presiding over the naming of a new head of the Civil Rights Division, a woman who worked for - has worked for at least some time in the Civil Rights Division itself and previously in other Justice Department positions, and who has not always, initially, had a lot of controversy. So that's kind of a fresh start right there.

And he has made - he did make a point during his confirmation hearings and other statements of talking a lot about the importance of enforcing civil rights laws. And so that, you know, he certainly was seeming to send a signal that he might be taking a somewhat different approach.

COX: You know, now you heard what we've just shown to be the history - a partial history of the Civil Rights Division. If you look at that division right now, Dan, what is the division given the most credit for and what does it getting the most blame for?

Mr. EGGEN: I think that the crux of the - if you look statistically, it clearly has abandoned much of its enforcement of what you'd sort of label traditional civil rights prosecutions, traditional civil rights cases. The kinds of cases that we think about when we look back to the beginning of the division and through the civil rights era in terms of enforcing access to the ballot box and, you know, ensuring no racial discrimination in allowing access to voting and all that sort of thing.

The division, for example, has taken on human trafficking cases, which, you know, many people have no problem with them enforcing. But that has come at the expense of some of these other traditional civil rights cases. And there's also been a lot more attention on alleged voter fraud, which is a - something that Republicans complain a lot about and that liberals and Democrats argue as mostly a phantom. But there's been a lot of attention paid to that as opposed to, again, ballot access issues.

So, you know, that would be - that's the way to sort of look at how things have changed and to see whether that's moving back towards those more bedrock issues.

COX: We talked about how various administrations have shaped the enforcement policy of the Civil Rights Division based on who's sitting in the White House. How do you see the Civil Rights Division likely to change with the next administration not knowing who that next administration is obviously?

Mr. EGGEN: Well, yeah. I mean, I think it does seem clear that - I think it is one of those divisions of the Justice Department that is particularly susceptible to, you know, policy change or policy emphasis that's different depending on who's in the White House. I mean - and as, I think someone argued on your program earlier, that might not be a bad thing, that might be the way the system is supposed to work.

So if you do get someone who is more from the left, a Democrat, for example, as the next president, you could see a real significant change in emphasis at the Civil Rights Division. Again, maybe an expansion, I mean, who knows? The - but if you get a Republican or conservative, it might be more along similar lines to what we've been seeing during the Bush administration. So I don't think there's any doubt it has a real impact.

COX: Final thing is this - I've got less than a minute. There's been a lot written and said about the internal fighting at Justice, particularly as it relates to the Civil Rights Division and others with the career attorneys versus the political appointees. Is that still going on?

Mr. EGGEN: Well, so many people have quit that it's arguably calmed down somewhat. The most recent - in recent months, though, there was, you know, a new controversy over the head of the voting rights section who got into a lot of hot water for some fairly controversial statements on race that he made. He's a white man. He's still in that job at the moment, but we'll see if he remains in that job.

COX: Okay.

Mr. EGGEN: And so, there continuous to be a real tension between a lot of the career ranks and some of the political appointees or those who are allied with the political appointees. So…

COX: We're going to have to stop there.

Mr. EGGEN: …I'm afraid we're still seeing a lot of tension.

COX: We're going to have to stop there. Dan, thank you so much for coming on.

Dan Eggen…

Mr. EGGEN: Thank you.

COX: …covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post. He spoke with us by phone from his office.

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