The Department of Justice had the kind of pro-police reform week that doesn't happen every year. In a seven-day period, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, an overhaul on how to handle law enforcement oversight deals, and a promise to make sure the Justice Department wasn't funding agencies that engage in racial discrimination.
"This was a big week for civil rights at the DOJ," Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, shared in a thread about the progress on Twitter Thursday. "Proof that elections matter and that having civil rts attys in DOJ leadership matters. Let me walk you through what's happened in just this one week. It's actually astounding."
The first step forward on Ifill's list came in the form of a review of the Department of Justice's use of monitors who oversee implementation of consent decrees. The New York Timesdefined the legal mechanisms as "court-approved deals between the Justice Department and local governmental agencies that create a road map for changes to the way they operate." Garland rescinded Trump-era policy that blocked consent decrees from addressing police misconduct in April. "This has been a concern among community groups in cities where police dept's are covered by consent decrees after DOJ investigations," Ifill tweeted. Garland announced on Monday 19 actions the department will take to address that concern.
"The department has found that – while consent decrees and monitorships are important tools to increase transparency and accountability – the department can and should do more to improve their efficiency and efficacy," Garland said in a news release. "The Associate Attorney General has recommended – and I have accepted – a set of 19 actions that the department will take to address those concerns." Those actions include capping monitoring fees on consent decrees, requiring stakeholder input, imposing specified terms for monitors, and requiring a hearing after five years "so that jurisdictions can demonstrate the progress it has made, and if possible, to move for termination."
"Consent decrees have proven to be vital tools in upholding the rule of law and promoting transformational change in the state and local governmental entities where they are used," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in the news release. "The department must do everything it can to guarantee that they remain so by working to ensure that the monitors who help implement these decrees do so efficiently, consistently and with meaningful input and participation from the communities they serve."
That was only Monday.
Kristen Clarke, who leades the Justice Department's civil rights division, announced on Tuesday that the Justice Department has launched an investigation into allegations of unconstitutional mistreatment of prisoners in Georgia, according to The New York Times. "Under the Eighth Amendment of our Constitution, those who have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to serve time in prison must never be subjected to 'cruel and unusual punishments,'" Clarke said in her announcement of the investigation.
At least 26 people died last year by "confirmed or suspected homicide" in Georgia prisons, and 18 homicides have been reported this year in the state. That's not including those who have been left to die in horrible conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Inmates facing that threat rioted at Ware State Prison last August in a viral uprising. Two inmates at the facility had died of COVID-19, and 22 prisoners and 32 staff members had tested positive for the virus during the time of the riot, according to Georgia Department of Corrections recordsobtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"This is huge. The humanitarian crisis in southern prisons is a critically important issue," Ifill tweeted of Clarke's announcement."Then the DOJ announced that it will ban the use of no-knock entries and chokeholds by federal law enforcement officers (except in cases where deadly force is authorized - more to probe abt the exception to be sure) ."
The decision follows the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was sleeping when officers executing a no-knock drug warrant smashed in her door after midnight and shot her at least eight times in her Louisville, Kentucky, home on March 13, 2020. Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020 when a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes despite Floyd saying repeatedly that he couldn't breathe. "Building trust and confidence between law enforcement and the public we serve is central to our mission at the Justice Department," Garland said in a news release. "The limitations implemented today on the use of 'chokeholds,' 'carotid restraints' and 'no-knock' warrants, combined with our recent expansion of body-worn cameras to DOJ's federal agents, are among the important steps the department is taking to improve law enforcement safety and accountability."
Also on Ifill's list of Justice Department wins is a review to make sure it isn't awarding grants to law enforcement agencies that engage in racial discrimination. That review could have wide-reaching effects, touching education, health care, transportation, pretty much every facet that receive federal funding, The New York Times reported. "Approximately $4.5 billion in federal funding flows through the department to police departments, courts and correctional facilities, as well as victim services groups, research organizations and nonprofit groups," Times writer Katie Benner wrote. "All of these organizations, not just police departments, could be affected by this review."
Ifill tweeted it's been a long time since she's seen a week like last week, with the Justice Department announcing multiple measures to reform criminal justice "each with the potential to result in fundamental shifts in longstanding discriminatory practices." "I'm remembering AG Garland's confirmation testimony in which he explained that he needed AAG @vanitaguptaCR & Asst AG for Civil Rights @KristenClarkeJD on his team in particular to help him with critical areas of the work with which he does not have experience.
"This week feels like an important return on his commitment to assembling this rich team."
Kristen Clarke, a longtime voting rights advocate, was confirmed on May 25, making her the first woman and the first Black woman to lead the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division since it was created in 1957. When Gupta was confirmed on April 21, she became the first woman of color and the first civil rights lawyer to serve as associate attorney general.
Ifill went on to tweet: "For many I know this all may seem slow and clunky - it is after all, the government. I'm gratified to see that they're using the tools they have to undertake measures civil rights groups have been asking for for years. And they're working carefully and smart."
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When then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct by Christine Blasey Ford — a psychology professor at Palo Alto University — in 2018, the FBI conducted an investigation. But Kavanaugh's critics argued that the investigation should have been much more comprehensive in light of the fact that then-President Donald Trump had nominated him for a lifetime appointment on the highest judicial body in the United States. FBI Director Christopher Wray's handling of that investigation, according to Guardian reporter Stephanie Kirchgaessner, continues to be scrutinized three years later.
Kirchgaessner explains, "The FBI director, Chris Wray, is facing new scrutiny of the Bureau's handling of its 2018 background investigation of Brett Kavanaugh, including its claim that the FBI lacked the authority to conduct a further investigation into the then-Supreme Court nominee. At the heart of the new questions that Wray will face later this week, when he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a 2010 memorandum of understanding that the FBI has recently said constrained the agency's ability to conduct any further investigations of allegations of misconduct."
In 2018, Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct not only by Ford, but also, by Deborah Ramirez (one of Kavanaugh's classmates at Yale University in the 1980s) and web developer Julie Swetnick (who also knew Kavanaugh during his Yale days). Ford testified during now-Justice Kavanaugh's Senate confirmation hearings; Ramirez and Swetnick did not. And critics of Kavanaugh believed that Ramirez and Swetnick's allegations should have been thoroughly investigated by law enforcement. Kavanaugh flatly denied their accusations.
"The FBI closed its extended background check of Kavanaugh after four days and did not interview either Blasey Ford or Kavanaugh," Kirchgaessner notes. "The FBI also disclosed to the Senate this June — two years after questions were initially asked — that it had received 4500 tips from the public during the background check and that it had shared all 'relevant tips' with the White House counsel at that time. It is not clear whether those tips were ever investigated."
In a letter sent to two Democratic U.S. senators, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the FBI said that under the 2010 memo of understanding, it didn't have the authority to "unilaterally conduct further investigative activity absent instructions from the requesting entity." Kirchgaessner reports, however, that "an examination by The Guardian of the 2010 MOU, which was signed by the then-Attorney General Eric Holder and then-White House Counsel Robert Bauer, does not make explicitly clear that the FBI was restricted in terms of how it would conduct its investigation."
According to Kirchgaessner, "Wray is likely to face scrutiny on why information that was specific to the allegations of sexual misconduct was not fully explored, including evidence that was reportedly offered to investigators by an alleged witness named Max Stier, an attorney and former classmate of Ramirez, who reportedly notified senators that he had witnessed an event similar to the one recounted by Ramirez. Stier's account was never examined by the FBI."
The FBI declined to be interviewed for Kirchgaessner's article, but Whitehouse agreed to be interviewed.
The Rhode Island Democrat told the Guardian, "In its years-late response to our questions, the FBI leaned hard on the notion that this MOU limited its authority to be the FBI and investigate wrongdoing. Now that we have the MOU, it's even harder to understand the Bureau's excuses for ignoring credible information it received. Director Wray ought to be ready to answer my questions about this episode — I won't stop asking until he does."
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It's a redistricting year in the blue state of Illinois, which means that Republicans are getting less consideration than a missionary on the Las Vegas Strip. Democrats have been winning in the Land of Lincoln for a long while, controlling the state House for all but two of the past 38 years. But they see no harm in running up the score.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker campaigned on a vow to take reapportionment away from politicians and turn it over to an independent commission. But that didn't happen, and when the General Assembly sent him district maps that exemplified partisan gerrymandering, he signed them into law.
"Make no mistake, these maps were drawn solely for the Democrats to maintain their political power in the state of Illinois," House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said. Democrats outnumber Republicans 73-45 in the state House, and those numbers are likely to grow more lopsided.
Similar things are going on in New York, where Democrats have plotted new district lines with the goal of cutting the GOP's eight members of Congress to four or even three of the 26 seats the state will have. That's less than 16 percent of the seats in a state where 38 percent of voters went for Donald Trump. New York's Republican Party chair Nick Langworthy said the redistricting "is a political sham built on a foundation of lies and hypocrisy."
Shams are the norm in this process, where lawmakers celebrate the glories of democracy while scheming to make elections an empty formality. Democrats in blue states are more than willing to ignore their good-government allies to cement their control in state legislatures — and to keep Nancy Pelosi in the speaker's chair.
After losing out on Maryland's last congressional map, Republicans took the fight to the Supreme Court, arguing that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. (The court disagreed.) So you might think that Republicans would be determined to put an end to partisan reapportionment. But hypocrisy is a two-way street.
Today, the GOP has control of the governor's office and the legislature in 23 states, compared to 15 such "trifectas" for Democrats. Such dominance is never more valuable than in a redistricting year, giving those in power the chance to supersize their advantage for a full decade.
Political scientists Alex Keena, Michael Latner, Anthony McGann and Charles Anthony Smith wrote in The Washington Post, "We found that, after 2011, 45 state legislative maps had been drawn with extreme partisan gerrymandering. Of these, 43 favor Republicans, while only two help Democrats. Because of these gerrymandered maps, Republicans held onto power after losing the statewide popular vote in Virginia in 2017, and in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2018."
That explains why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has no interest in a Democratic bill that would make it impossible to tilt the playing field. The For the People Act would require states to hand over redistricting to independent commissions. With that reform, incumbents would no longer get to tailor their constituencies to achieve permanent tenure.
It would not prevent either party from winning most legislative or congressional seats in a particular state. Such bodies already draw maps in several states, including Arizona, where the GOP has held a majority in both houses of the legislature since 2003, and California, where Democrats have done the same since 1997.
In most places, the issue is not which party will dominate. It's just by how much.
Besides, no one objects when a party getting a majority of the votes wins a majority of seats. Objections are in order, though, when the party getting a minority of the votes wins a majority of seats. Last year, Democratic candidates for Congress got 43 percent of the votes cast in South Carolina — but only one of the seven House seats, or 14 percent.
A federal solution is needed because at the state level, no party in power wants to cede control of redistricting. Democrats say they can't afford to unilaterally disarm in the battle for power, and Republicans show no interest in mutual renunciation of gerrymandering.
But in the long run, a fairer system would be a good thing for both parties. It would give each more opportunities to compete and more incentive to stay in tune with the preferences of those they represent.
It would be best of all for the voters, many of whom have been effectively rendered powerless. Democracy is supposed to rest on the consent of the governed, not the governors.
Follow Steve Chapman on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com
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