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Justice Department Signals Change In Approach To Civil Rights Cases


Civil rights groups consider the U.S. Justice Department the most important government agency, and they're watching closely for changes under President Donald Trump. Here's what Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights said earlier this week.


KRISTEN CLARKE: We are deeply concerned that this Justice Department is preparing to abandon its commitment to enforcement of our nation's federal civil rights laws.

SIEGEL: Well, here now to talk about this issue is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hiya.


SIEGEL: Who's minding the store of the Justice Department these days?

JOHNSON: Well, believe it or not, President Obama's Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates has agreed to stick around until a new boss at Justice is confirmed. Her top deputy's still in charge, and many of the U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals are holding over from the Obama administration, but Donald Trump brought in a small team of political appointees right on Inauguration Day. These are people in jobs that don't require Senate approval, Robert, and they've also shifted around some career lawyers, too.

SIEGEL: What about the status of President Trump's nominee to be attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions?

JOHNSON: Jeff Sessions is likely to be confirmed, Robert, in the next couple of weeks, despite opposition from civil rights groups. And a bit of news here too, we're hearing that Rod Rosenstein, the top prosecutor in Baltimore, is in line to become the deputy attorney general. Rachel Brand, a veteran of the George W. Bush Justice Department, is a likely associate attorney general - number three there - but the administration has not yet formally nominated them to those jobs.

SIEGEL: We're less than a week into the Trump administration. Can you already see changes that have taken place?

JOHNSON: There are a few signals of change, particularly in the civil rights area. Already the DOJ has asked to delay a court hearing involving a settlement with Baltimore over discrimination and excessive force by the police department in Baltimore. That means it's possible the consent decree the Obama DOJ reached with Baltimore could change shape under the Trump DOJ.

In maybe an even bigger shift, the new Justice Department team has asked to delay a hearing in a case involving a voter ID law in Texas. Now, four courts have found that voter ID law in Texas discriminates against black and Latino people. The Obama DOJ put a bunch of lawyers on the case and enlisted a bunch of experts, but civil rights groups are really worried Justice may be preparing to switch positions in the case, and they say that the civil rights community will keep pressing ahead even if the Justice Department bails.

SIEGEL: Who's handling civil rights at the Department of Justice now?

JOHNSON: No nominee yet, but there are two political appointees already in place. One is Thomas Wheeler, a lawyer from Indiana with close ties to Vice President Mike Pence, and John Gore, a lawyer from private practice in D.C. who's worked on a lot of civil rights cases, but from a Republican point of view. He worked on the North Carolina HB2 bathroom bill. He also handled a lot of Republican redistricting cases in private practice. And let's be clear here, the Civil Rights Division changes dramatically - big shifts - depending on which political party wins the White House, and the Obama Justice Department was one of the most activist and aggressive on civil rights in the last 50 years. There are going to be major changes ahead, we're starting to see them now.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.