By: Tony Best
Legal battles between the U.S. Justice Department and several states over vital constitutional issues are being waged in federal courts and the country is better off for them
Immigration, access to effective healthcare through the provisions of Obamacare and now efforts to turn back the Republican political tide that aims to make it difficult for tens of millions of Americans to exercise their fundamental right of choosing their federal, state and local governments are three of the crucial issues judges have or are being asked to settle.
Thank goodness the Justice Department has Eric Holder, the nation’s first Black Attorney-General, at the helm of what is the world’s largest law firm and the country is fortunate that a determined President Barack Obama is in the White House to provide the moral and other support from the highest office of the land. That combination is necessary if the people are to win.
Last week-end the Attorney went to Las Vegas for the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, America’s oldest and largest Hispanic civil rights organization and delivered a resounding message to the thousands of Latinos from across the country: the Justice Department will aggressively and effectively protect the civil liberties and the political rights of every person in America, regardless of where they were born.
Fresh from the Administration’s victory in the Supreme Court over Republican and Tea Party adherents whose unrelenting quest remains overturning the landmark health care reform law that is opening up the health care system to more than 30 million poor people and days after the partial success in stopping the objectionable immigration law in Arizona that would throw open the gates to widespread racial profiling of Hispanic and Black immigrants, Holder made a solemn and much welcomed promise.
“Working to eliminate bias and combat intimidation constitutes a key area of focus for those who engage in civil rights across every sector of our society,” was the way he put it.
That pledge is being transformed into reality by the Justice Department’s civil rights division which is stoutly leading the charge against the discriminatory tendencies of certain conservative elements in the country.
“Over the past three years, our Civil Rights Division has filed more criminal civil rights cases than during any other period in its history, including record numbers of human trafficking hate crimes and police misconduct,” the Attorney General told a cheering convention.
That good news and it’s a story which must be told if only to let the passionate haters know they can’t get away with criminal behavior.
Combatting hate crimes is an important goal of that war. Nowhere was that more horrific than in the case brought by the Department under the landmark Mathew Shepherd and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act signed into law three years by the president after the National Council of La Raza, the National association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, the Urban League and other civil rights organization campaigned vigorously to get the legislation on the statute books. In that case, five Latino victims were pursued and brutally assaulted simply because of their ethnicity. The conviction and the stiff punishment meted out to the perpetrators have sent a clear an unmistakable message to those who believe some sections of society have no rights deserving of respect.
“We will find you, stop you and bring you to justice,” Holder promised. “They underscore our determination to secure severe penalties against those who value our civil rights laws. And they prove our commitment to protect each and every victim we can reach.”
On Monday, 48 hours after the AG’s address, the Justice Department went into court seeking to outlaw a Texas new voter ID law, whose provisions are a clear violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. By moving with haste, Washington showed that it would leave no stone unturned in its battle to end voter suppression. Under a 2010 law passed by the GOP dominated Texas legislature requires voters to show photo identification when in order to be allowed into a polling station to cast their ballots. The intent of the law is unmistakable. It is to disenfranchise as many as 1.4 million voters in Texas who lack any form of acceptable identification.
If allowed to stand, the Texas law could open the floodgates to similar legislative acts in other parts of the country. Indeed, it has already done so. This legislative act has no place in a country which backed the Arab Spring in the Middle East which led to the ouster of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Yemen and Libya which for decades. The U.S. shouldn’t be seen by the rest of the world as acquiescing in the intimidation of its own people while urging others outside of its border to take to the streets for the right to vote.
That may explain why the NAACP, America’s best known civil rights body went to Texas and in a stirring and eloquent address that brought back memories of “Selma and Montgomery” and the epic struggles of the civil rights movement Benjamin Jealous, the organization chief executive forcefully inveighed against voting suppression.
“We must overwhelm the rising tide of voting suppression with the high tide of registration and mobilization and motivation and protection,” Jealous said.
The best way to fight that abhorrent tactic of preventing the elderly, poor and racial minority from voting is to let their voice be heard and their muscle be felt in the corridors of power and influence. After all, the people who suffer the most are the ones who are less likely to have driver’s licences or passports and who can’t afford to miss work to obtain proper ID is by getting out the vote.
The National Council of La Raza and the NAACP are experts at doing just that.
In an election year when bitter debates about immigration, health care and civil rights are at the top of the agenda of millions of Americans, the guardians of our rights, the Justice Department among them must flex its muscle and rein in the abusers.
This brings us back to Holder. As the product of an immigrant community – his parents were from the Caribbean, he knows only too well about the enduring ideals of fairness, inclusion and opportunity which must be passed on to our children and grandchildren.