From New York to California, from Idaho to Alabama and Michigan, the Department of Justice is watching local court cases. In a program initiated early in the Obama administration and enforced with zeal by Eric Holder, the DOJ has been wading into local cases involving civil rights. Although she appears less controversial than Holder- think of her as a stealth Holder- current Attorney General Loretta Lynch has quietly rathcheted up the pressure from Washington.
Although by law the DOJ is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws in this country, they rarely became involved in local cases unless there was a clear and convincing nexus to federal implications. Usually, past administrations would wade into local lawsuits only if they involved national security or diplomacy. For example, the Bush administration filed a statement of interest in a local case involving former victims of Iranian torture seeking damages. Bush’s DOJ reminded the judge of the possible diplomatic implications, but did not come out on one side or the other. In effect, they were trusting the impartiality of the judicial system. In the non-diplomatic or national security area, the Bush administration also (incorrectly in my view) waded into the Terry Schiavo controversy in Florida.
Let’s look at this dynamic from a different perspective. At the level of the Supreme Court, many cases do not involve the federal government. In some cases, there may be a federal question however. In those cases, to anyone who follows the Supreme Court, they issue a CVSG- Call for the View of the Solicitor General. In these DOJ cases, the local courts are not asking for federal help; the federal government is injecting themselves into the local judicial process. Several people have noted the concerted effort undertaken by the DOJ in this area and refer to it as “unprecedented.”
These DOJ Statement of Interest filings have one goal in mind- to sway the judge hearing the case. And the cases are varied. In one out of Washington state involving a town of 8,000 residents, the DOJ intervened in a case involving legal representation for indigent defendants. After the statement was received, the judge in that case ordered the city to hire a legal aid supervisor and placed the city under a court order and supervision in this area. The same thing happened in New York where the ACLU in that state, which was representing the defendants, brazenly stated after a judicial decision in their favor that the DOJ’s intervention is what swayed the judge in their favor.
Every local issue is now being elevated to a federal civil rights violation worthy of if not a DOJ investigation, then injecting themselves into the judicial proceedings without solicitation of their views. This has involved cases of not only legal aid for indigent defendants, but the rights of transgender people in Michigan, juvenile detention practices in California, filming of police officers in Maryland, and even access to Uber by blind people.
The obvious result, seeing the effects, has been for civil rights groups to inundate the Department of Justice with requests for intervention of some kind. And Holder and Lynch’s DOJ has been more than willing to do so. They are pushing the boundaries of civil rights law in the process where every alleged violation is now seen as a federal issue ignorant of the actual facts of each case. For example, they intervened in Boise, Idaho in a case where homeless people were arrested for sleeping in public areas. The DOJ claimed that violated the constitutional rights of the homeless. The judge in that case mandated that Boise provide a place to sleep for the homeless. Pushing the bounds of civil rights law, there is now an apparent constitutional right to sleep.
And that is exactly the purpose of the actions of the Department of Justice- to create the broadest and most liberal interpretation of civil rights laws. This is not enforcement of the law; it is pushing a liberal political agenda. It is also a disrespect and unwarranted suspicion of local courts. The “correct” court decision is one that mirrors the position of the Department of Justice in their view. If that is the case, then let’s just get rid of local and state courts.
The heavy hand of Loretta Lynch and the specter of Eric Holder- coming to a local court near you.