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When African-American leaders took up the case of Trayvon Martin, they knocked on the door of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. That's happening a lot lately. Over the past three years, the unit has investigated record numbers of hate crime allegations. It has also uncovered abuses in local police departments and challenged voting laws in Texas and South Carolina. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: On the walls of his office in the Justice Department, Civil Rights chief Tom Perez has tacked up photos of his heroes: Ted Kennedy and Frederick Douglass. Perez says they help him keep an eye on his mission.
TOM PEREZ: I wish discrimination were a thing of the past. I wish we were living in post-racial America. I wish my phone were not ringing. But regrettably, it's ringing off the hook in the voting context. It's ringing off the hook in the hate crimes context and in so many other contexts.
JOHNSON: Just last week, Perez announced federal hate crimes charges against three white youths who had been targeting African-American men for sport in Jackson Mississippi. Last summer, those three young white men found James Craig Anderson. They beat him and ran over him with a three-ton pickup truck. Those men face life in prison when they're sentenced later this year.
ERIC HOLDER: We have come a long way in our journey.
JOHNSON: Attorney General Eric Holder.
HOLDER: But we're not at the place yet where we want to be. Even though we have an African-American president, we have an African-American attorney general, there are still instances that we see - I think painfully see of discrimination.
JOHNSON: Holder pointed out a record $335 million settlement that the Justice Department extracted from the Countrywide mortgage company last December. Countrywide had been accused of steering black and Latino homeowners into subprime home loans that carried higher rates and fees.
HOLDER: The civil rights division, I think, is the conscience of the Justice Department.
JOHNSON: But for political conservatives, this unusually active civil rights division represents something else.
ROGER CLEGG: It's a very liberal civil rights division, I think by far, the most liberal I've seen.
JOHNSON: Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that follows issues of race and ethnicity. He says this Justice Department is pushing the boundaries of the law when it comes to voting rights and fair lending. But Clegg says it's not doing enough to prevent racial quotas in school admissions.
J. Christian Adams, a conservative lawyer who quit the department in 2010, has a more pointed critique. He says his political superiors at Justice showed...
J. CHRISTIAN ADAMS: An unwillingness to enforce the law in a race neutral fashion.
JOHNSON: Adams helped propel a scandal that dogged the Obama Justice Department for two years, the department's decision to narrow charges against members of the New Black Panther Party, a fringe group accused of intimidating Philadelphia voters on Election Day 2008. Their activities were videotaped by a conservative activist and broadcast over and over on Fox TV. No white voters came forward to say they felt uncomfortable, but Adams said...
ADAMS: The law also bans the attempt to intimidate. And I think anyone who sees the video can see that that was going on.
JOHNSON: Perez and the attorney general got grilled on the issue just about every time they testified before Republicans in Congress. But ethics watchdogs at the Justice Department ultimately concluded that the Civil Rights Division had done nothing wrong in the Black Panther case. Eric Holder.
HOLDER: It was something that had no basis, in fact. It was politically motivated and was an unnecessary distraction.
JOHNSON: Perez says he's too busy to linger on those old controversies. Earlier this month, he announced a big settlement with a suburban Minnesota school district to prevent bullying in schools. Several kids there committed suicide after facing taunts over their sexual orientation. He's also gearing up for big legal fights over the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The department rejected voting laws in Texas and South Carolina, which he says discriminate against blacks and Latinos at the ballot box.
PEREZ: It's about expanding opportunity, whether it's the opportunity to vote, the opportunity to realize the American dream of home ownership, the opportunity to get a fair education. We're in the opportunity business, and I think we've been able to expand opportunity.
JOHNSON: Some of those controversial issues, the Voting Rights Act, tests of affirmative action, are destined to end up before the Supreme Court. But Perez says his job is about making sure everybody has a fair shake, something he remembers every time he looks at pictures of his inspiration on the wall. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.